by ANNCOL Friday, Apr. 26, 2002 at 12:14 PM

In a desperate ploy to justify increasing Washington's involvement in the Colombian civil war, the US State Department is bizarrely claiming that Al-Qaida and Hizbollah cells are active in the border area between Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

By Alfredo Castro, ANNCOL Colombia) On April 18th US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage announced that elements from the Al-Qaida and Hizbollah groups were operating in remote jungle regions near Ecuador's border with Peru and Colombia and that Ecuador was in desperate need of US help to combat them.

According to Armitage, who was speaking to the House Appropriations' Foreign Operations Subcommittee in an attempt to get further financing for the US campaign in Colombia, "We have got in the tri-border area a bit of a problem with al-Qaida itself and some Hizbollah elements."

The outlandish claim comes as the US seeks to step up its involvement in the counterinsurgency war that is being waged against the insurgents in Colombia. The border region is home to various units of the FARC-EP guerrilla organisation as well as to, on the Ecuadorian side of the border in particular, vibrant environmental and indigenous rights movements.

Washington is keen to take control of the area not just to facilitate the counterinsurgency war but also for longer-term economic and strategic reasons and principally because huge oil deposits have recently been found in northern Ecuador.

However, despite the US accusations the Ecuadorian government denies the claim and, according to the Foreign Minister Heinz Moller on April 19th, "officially the government of Ecuador knows absolutely nothing about that, and the connotation that this statement could have concerns us enormously". Moller also demanded some form of proof from the US government.

Ecuador is keen not to get involved in the Colombian conflict partly due to the fact that the current regime in Quito has recently been rocked by numerous popular protests itself and the government does not wish to destabilise the situation further. Already the US has a large air base at Manta on Ecuador's Pacific coast although the Ecuadorians have forbidden Washington from using this for anything other than counter-narcotics operations.