British aid for Colombian refugee crisis

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With US aid to Colombia largely frozen because of so-called drug- smuggling "de-certification," Britain has stepped in to provide badly needed aid to 7,000 refugees fleeing a bloody three-way military conflict.

Despite a recent history of kidnappings of British Petroleum workers in Colombia, the British government was the first to provide food, medicine, tents and mattresses this week to refugees along the north-western coast of the violence-torn South American nation.

Rural Colombians are used to warfare. Marxist guerrillas control most areas beyond the city suburbs. But the north-west of the country, close to the Pacific coast, is now the scene of warfare that makes Sixties' Vietnam almost pale by comparison.

Guerrillas of the so-called Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) long ruled the jungle-clad Uraba region where soldiers, mostly conscripts brought in from other regions, feared to tread. Then, recently, along came so-called para-military groups who bear a striking resemblance to the regular army but wear their baseball-style caps backwards, cover their epaulettes and appear far better fed and paid than the usual conscripts. Most Colombians believe they are regular or retired soldiers in the pay of the government or cocaine lords who control much of the country's economy.

While these two groups are battling it out with everything from rifles to mortars, the Colombian airforce has been bombarding the north-west in an effort to crush the guerrillas. That is why 7,000 people fled their homes in the last two weeks and why the British government is providing aid.

While the US has been playing politics over Colombia - the American embassy in Bogota regards itself as a kind of de facto government - British diplo- mats have been quietly trying to influence events on the ground.

Britain had already set up a "distance-learning programme" to educate young Colombians via new computer technology. It was the British government that turned a rubbish dump in the cocaine-cradle city of Medellin into an open-air theatre a few years ago. "It was in line with that tradition that we stepped in," said Johnny Welsh, British embassy spokesman in Bogota.