- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 28, 2001

President Bush yesterday rejected an invitation from Colombia's Marxist guerrillas for the United States to participate in peace talks next month, saying it is up to Colombians to resolve the conflict themselves.

At a White House meeting with Colombian President Andres Pastrana, who earlier this week encouraged the Bush administration to sit at the table with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Mr. Bush told reporters that the United States would not send a representative to Colombia's peace talks with the FARC.

"No … we will not be [there]," he told reporters. "This is an issue that the Colombian people and the Colombian president can deal with. We'll be glad to help Colombia in any way to make the peace. We'll be glad to help the Colombian economy through trade. But I won't be present for the discussions."

Mr. Bush said that he was well aware of the problems Colombia faces, and he pledged U.S. assistance "not only to help Colombia, but help our own country."

"We're fully aware of the narcotics that are manufactured in his country," Mr. Bush said. "I also told him that many of them wouldn't be manufactured if our nation didn't use them. And we've got to work together to not only help Colombia, but help our own country."

After the meeting, Mr. Pastrana said the two leaders talked about the war on drugs, the rebel insurgency that funds itself with drug money and the Colombian economy. Mr. Pastrana said he also pressed his case that the United States open its doors to duty-free manufactured clothing from Colombia.

Mr. Bush, calling himself a "free trader" indicated that Mr. Pastrana might get U.S. help in that area.

"[Mr. Pastrana] made a very strong case for broadening the trade agreement," said Mr. Bush.

Latin America specialists yesterday agreed that extending trade preferences to Colombia and other Andean nations as a way of creating legal employment in former drug-producing regions is a small price for the United States to pay in the war on drugs.

"If Colombia is to begin to solve its many problems, it needs expanded access to U.S. and other markets to sell its products," said Lowell Fleischer, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Mercosur-South America Project.

Last week, the FARC, which has been waging war against the Colombian government for 37 years, invited international participation in the stalled peace process. On Friday, the guerrillas extended the invitation to the United States and Cuba.

Mr. Pastrana, who arrived in Washington on Saturday, told U.S. lawmakers this week, that he welcomed U.S. participation in the meeting scheduled for March 8 in FARC-held territory, an area the size of Switzerland that Colombia ceded to the rebels in 1998.

The United States did meet with members of the FARC in the past but broke off talks after three U.S.-Indian rights activists were kidnapped and executed by the FARC in 1999.

The United States has refused to meet with the FARC until those responsible are turned over for trial.

Mr. Pastrana expressed his gratitude yesterday to Mr. Bush for discussing "how can we deal with a common enemy that is narco-trafficking" and for $1.3 billion in U.S. aid that is helping fund Mr. Pastrana's "Plan Colombia," a $7.5 billion effort to eradicate drugs from Colombia, resettle displaced peasants, encourage alternative-crop production and reform Colombia's corrupt judicial system.

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