Colombia General Denies Rights Violation

Tue Jan 28, 6:38 PM ET

By MATT KELLEY, Associated Press Writer


WASHINGTON - Most allegations of human rights abuses by the Colombian

military are false and politically motivated, the head of Colombia's army

said Tuesday.


Gen. Carlos Ospina, visiting the Pentagon (news - web sites) to meet with

his U.S. counterpart, said the Colombian military was not responsible for

massacres and other abuses, as some human rights groups allege.


"That is not happening in Colombia. People are asking for our presence in

all the villages, in all the cities," Ospina told reporters. "It's to the

point where I don't have any more people to guard all of the villages.


"If there is any abuse, it's very easy to correct," he said. "We just put

the guy on trial and fire him."


The United States cut off aid this month to a Colombian air force unit

suspected in the killing of 17 civilians more than four years ago. While

military officials have said a rebel car bomb was responsible for the deaths

near Santo Domingo, an FBI (news - web sites) forensic analysis said the

shrapnel was consistent with a bomb designed to be dropped from the air.

Survivors say they were attacked from the air.


Military and civil investigations of that incident are continuing and should

be finished soon, Ospina said.


"We are confident that very soon this case is going to be absolutely clear,

and everybody's going to know exactly what happened in Santo Domingo,"

Ospina said.


Ospina said he felt bad about the U.S. decision to cut off aid to a squadron

of the First Aerial Command Unit.


The United States has given nearly $2 billion to Colombia in the past few

years, mostly military aid meant to fight drug trafficking. Thousands of

Colombians die each year in a decades-long conflict that pits the government

and an outlawed right-wing group against two leftist rebel armies. The three

banned groups finance themselves through drug trafficking and, sometimes,

kidnapping and extortion.


Ospina said those who accuse the Colombian military of atrocities are saying

the same thing as representatives of the largest rebel group, the

Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.


"The FARC has political friends outside Colombia and they try to show us as

abusers," Ospina said. "Honest people around the world know that we are

serving our people well."


The Colombian military is training about 5,000 villagers from lawless areas

of the country to help fight the war, Ospina said. After that training ends

Feb. 5, the men will be sent to their home villages in 36-member army

platoons, he said.


Each of the 144 platoons will be paired with a platoon of other Colombian

soldiers, as well as local police, Ospina said. The government hopes to

expand the program to 400 villages throughout Colombia, he said.


American help, particularly with helicopters, is making a difference for the

Colombian military, Ospina said.


"As long as we continue to have that support, we will continue to improve,"

he said.


Colombia ready to deploy first peasant-troops


WASHINGTON, Jan. 28 — Colombia will start deploying troops next month as

part of a controversial program to train peasants to defend their hometowns

against guerrilla attacks, a top military official said on Tuesday.


The program is part of an ambitious plan by President Alvaro Uribe to post

15,000 armed soldier-peasants in remote villages, in a move that human

rights groups worry could lead to human rights excesses.


''On Feb. 5 they (the peasants) will finish their training and then be

deployed,'' said the Army Commander, Carlos Ospina, who is in Washington on

a Pentagon-sponsored program for foreign military chiefs.


He said 5,000 peasant-soldiers had been trained and armed, and would now be

returned to their villages, in small 36-men platoons.


Colombia is in the midst of a four-decade long armed conflict that pits

regular troops against two left-wing guerrilla groups and a right-wing

paramilitary unit. Vast tracts of the country are in guerrilla hands, which

the United States says use drug money to fund themselves.


Uribe, who was sworn in August at the same time Ospina took command, has

made a tougher stance against illegal groups a cornerstone of his



''Our purpose is to occupy villages that have no security, with campesinos,

with our soldiers and with police officers so we will regain control over

some areas,'' Ospina told reporters.


But on Jan. 14, Human Rights Watch issued a strongly worded report on

Colombia. The rights group said it was ''especially preoccupied'' with the

peasant-soldier program which could lead to ''a legalization of the

paramilitary partners of the army.''


To avoid excesses, Ospina said each armed peasant platoon, which he called

soldiers, would be accompanied by a regular army platoon and would

coordinate with local police units.


The units will be deployed in 144 villages, with an additional 400 villages

getting fresh recruits over the next few months.


Ospina said he had visited villages that would benefit from the program and

locals were happy to get the troops, which they considered ''their army,

their soldiers.''


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New Colombian soldiers to join fight

Pamela Hess

UPI Pentagon Correspondent


Published 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



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






Adam Isacson

Senior Associate, Demilitarization Program

Center for International Policy

1755 Massachusetts Ave NW, Suite 312

Washington DC 20036

+202-232-3317 fax 232-3440