Rumsfeld to resume US air missions in Colombian drug trade crackdown

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The Independent US

The United States is resuming drug-interception flights over Colombia after a two-year hiatus, possibly signalling a desire by the Bush administration to become more heavily involved in the Colombian government's military crackdown on drug dealers and left-wing guerrilla rebels.

The resumption of the flights, jointly operated by the US and Colombia and known by their military codename Airbridge Denial, was announced by Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, who was in Bogota on a trip widely seen as an indication of greater US commitment to Colombia after the distractions of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"I think it [the air operation] is important," Mr Rumsfeld told reporters on the flight to Bogota. "It was helpful before and it's helpful now. There are plenty of ways that illegal trade can move - land, sea or air - and if you are not attentive to the air, obviously it becomes a preferred method."

Airbridge Denial was suspended in 2001 after a US pilot accidentally shot down a small plane over Peru carrying a US missionary and her baby. Despite repeated promises to the Colombians to revive flights, Washington has let a number of self-imposed deadlines come and go without acting. Establishing tight security rules to avoid more embarrassing accidents has been the main sticking point.

This month, the US-based lobby group Human Rights Watch wrote to the Colombian President, Alvaro Uribe, urging him to rein in the use of lethal force on the aerial surveillance flights. "Suspect aircraft cannot simply be fired on as if they were combatants in an armed conflict," HRW's José Miguel Vivanco said. "While we are deeply concerned about the destructive impact of drug trafficking, we call on the Colombian government to fight trafficking using methods that do not violate human rights." It was not immediately clear what new measures, if any, would now be introduced.

Washington is already heavily involved in Colombia, which receives more US aid than any other country except Israel and Egypt. Much of the $3bn (£bn) provided in the past three years has been military assistance, prompting widespread criticism because of the links between the Colombian armed forces and paramilitary groups responsible for kidnappings and murders, especially of union leaders and civilian critics of the Bogota government.

Mr Rumsfeld's visit follows close on the heels of a trip last week by Richard Myers, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff. He was overseeing a US-financed initiative to fumigate coca plants controlled by Farc rebels. He also visited US special forces who have been training the Colombian army.

Colombia's Defence Minister, Martha Lucia Ramirez, said if Washington provides the army with real-time [satellite] intelligence, "we will have the absolute certainty that in the next 18 months we will turn things around in favour of the Colombian state".