- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 25, 2002

Colombia's top military officer said yesterday that members of the Irish Republican Army are training Marxist rebels in his country to build bombs and upgrade their terrorist operations.

Gen. Fernando Tapias, chairman of Colombia's joint chiefs of staff, said seven IRA members, including the organization's chief engineer, have trained Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas in what he said was a threat to democracy in that country and the United States.

"This training, combined with an annual income of $1 billion for the FARC in illicit drug profits, represents a danger to Colombia and to the entire Western Hemisphere," he told the House Committee on International Relations.

Gen. Tapias said an "onslaught of terrorist acts" during the past year, including the bombing of 320 electrical towers, 30 bridges and 46 car bombings, posed "an extreme danger to democracy in Colombia."

He said the attacks, which increased in their proficiency after the arrival of IRA members in Colombia, have killed 400 police and military officers and caused $500 million in damage, mainly to the government's oil pipelines.

He told the committee he did not know whether the IRA members had come to Colombia at the order of the organization's leadership, but their IRA membership had been confirmed and they were training the FARC in the use of explosives and in other nonconventional arms and tactics.

Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political arm, declined an invitation to testify yesterday before the panel, but in a letter to Chairman Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican, denied any IRA involvement in the training of FARC guerrillas.

Gen. Tapias also testified that other foreigners had been identified by FARC deserters and informants as being involved in the training. He said they included people from Iran, Iraq, Nicaragua, Ecuador, El Salvador, Venezuela, Israel and Germany. He said that while Cubans helped establish the FARC, he had no information they were still involved.

The committee, after a nine-month investigation, said in a report yesterday that Colombia had become a "potential breeding ground" for international terror "equaled, perhaps, only by Afghanistan" under its former rulers, Taliban.

The report said the IRA's suspected involvement in Colombia, including the August arrest of three Irish nationals, showed that the FARC and the IRA were "honing their terrorism skills, using illicit drug proceeds in payment and collectively helping to challenge the rule of law in Colombia, the oldest democracy in South America."

The FARC is one of three Colombian groups on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations. The others are the National Liberation Army of Colombia and the United Self-Defense Group of Colombia.

The committee suggested in its report that the United States should "reassess its current policy of permitting military assistance." The Bush administration has already provided limited military help to Colombia, in the form of 400 military trainers and 400 civilian contractors, as part of President Andres Pastrana's anti-drug plan.

Some committee members, both Democrats and Republicans, questioned the accuracy of the report, saying there was no confirmation the IRA was involved. They suggested it was an attempt to undermine ongoing peace talks in Northern Ireland.

Reps. Bill Delahunt, Massachusetts Democrat, and Peter T. King, New York Republican, said the report offered only speculation that the IRA was involved. They said House investigators found no evidence showing the IRA leadership knew anything about the Irish nationals in Colombia.

Three IRA members Niall Connolly, James Monaghan and Martin McCauley were arrested in August on charges of training FARC rebels to make car bombs and mortars. They also were accused of using phony passports to enter Colombia. They have denied the accusations, saying they visited FARC-controlled areas to study peace negotiations.

Their trial is expected to begin in summer. Much of the evidence against the three is based on information from FARC defectors, including one who told police he was trained in explosives by Mr. McCauley and Mr. Monaghan.

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