- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 28, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 28 (UPI) — Next week 5,000 peasants recruited from small villages around Colombia will return to 144 villages as full-fledged soldiers where, backed by regular troops, they will attempt to reassert the rule of Bogota over the war-ravaged region, Gen. Carlos Ospina Ovalle, head of the Colombian Army since August, said Tuesday.

The program to turn campesinos into soldiers — and presumably provide protection from the leftist guerillas and the narco-traffickers they work with — is one facet of the newly aggressive war on terrorism and drugs, funded in large part by the United States.

"These terrorists and drug traffickers have united and are attacking our democratic system," Ospina told reporters at the Pentagon Tuesday. "They are trying to take over and we are stopping them."

The campesino program will put 36-man platoons of newly trained and uniform-wearing peasants in each of 144 villages where they will be joined by a similar platoon from active Colombian forces. Ultimately, Colombia hopes to extend the program to 400 villages.

"The purpose is to reoccupy villages that had no security," he said.

The United States has provided close to $2 billion to Colombian government over the last two years, and last summer expanded the aid to cover counter-terror activities rather than just counter-narcotics. Earlier this month, however, one Colombian Air Force unit lost American funding when the State Department determined it was responsible for — and then covered up — a cluster bomb attack in Santo Domingo that killed 17 civilians.

The 1998 attack was carried out near a pipeline owned by Occidental Petroleum, an American company, and allegations have since arisen that the coordinates for the attack came from a U.S. civilian security company that had a surveillance plane flying in the area. The 500-mile pipeline is the frequent target of sabotage, which has been attributed to guerillas.

Under the Leahy Law, the United States must cut off aid to units of foreign military forces that violate human rights.

Ospina refused to comment on the case, but suggested that once the "true" story is known, the decision may be reversed.

"It's still under investigation," he said. "Sooner or later they are going to have the truth and this case is going to be absolutely clear and everyone will know what happened in Santo Domingo."

Ospina proudly brandished a Gallup poll that shows the Colombian people have the highest respect for the military of all government institutions, with 82 percent ranking it as No. 1.

"People are asking for our presence in villages and cities to the point that I don't have any more soldiers to help, assist, and guard the villages," he said. "You can not love someone who is punishing you."

Ospina suggested that the leftist guerillas in Colombia may be behind the tales of human rights abuses past that continue to plague the Colombian military — particularly that it was in league with anti-leftists paramilitary groups who are believed by human rights groups to be responsible for the majority of abuses.

Indeed, Ospina himself has been criticized, as a unit in the 4th Brigade in Medellin had a long record of human rights abuses, including torture and executions, while it was under Ospina's command, according to the non-profit watchdog group Human Rights Watch.

One incident in 1997 caused particular concern: a unit of the 4th brigade surrounded the village of El Aro while paramilitaries killed "at least 11 people, including three children, burned 47 of the 68 houses, including a pharmacy, a church, and the telephone exchange, looted stores, destroyed the pipes that fed the homes potable water, and forced most of the residents to flee."

When the paramilitary group left, it stole "over 1,000 head of cattle and 30 people were reported to be forcibly disappeared," according to Human Rights Watch, citing evidence collected by the Colombian attorney general's office.

"The attorney general went through this case, and there was no evidence," Ospina said.

Human Rights Watch reported in its 2000 report that no charges had been filed because "the prosecutors and investigators assigned to the case have either recused themselves out of fear or fled Colombia because of threats."

Ospina denied any personal wrongdoing.

"I know that I'm clean. On the contrary, I've been protecting people," he said. "On the other side … they are trying always to show we are abusers, that we are killing people," he said. "Of course there are political interests … I wouldn't say this because I have no evidence, but there's a coincidence of what the FARC (guerillas) say and what these guys (the human rights groups) say. I'm not accusing anyone, but there's a nice coincidence."

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