03.03.2003 (By Maria Engqvist, ANNCOL Stockholm) A US donated Black Hawk assault helicopter is thought to have been shot down last Wednesday by leftist rebels, killing all 23 soldiers onboard.
The Colombian Army high command initially reported that the helicopter crashed because of bad weather while on a counterinsurgency mission in the mountains of northern Colombia. But local campesino Daniel Linares told daily El Tiempo that the chopper crashed after being shot at, presumably by leftist guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) or the National Liberation Army (ELN). Both rebel armies, who are fighting for socialist reforms, have a strong presence in the area.
In recent years Washington has donated 63 assault helicopters to assist the Bogota government in the civil war. Many of them are Black Hawks who have an almost mythical status to Colombia's military top commanders, who see them as just the right weapon to tackle the guerrillas.
It is however not the first time that rebels shoot down US donated Black Hawks. During the battle of Dabeiba in the Antioquia department in October 2000, FARC guerrillas shot down one Black Hawk and damaged two others, leaving a total of 56 government troops dead, before retreating.
More recently, the Colombian Army has suffered heavy losses at the hands of FARC rebels in the southern department of Putumayo and in the oil-rich eastern departments of Arauca and Casanare. A few weeks ago, 43 paramilitary fighters attached to the Colombian Army's 18th Brigade were killed in a series of clashes in Arauca and Casanare. Only days before, 46 pro-government paramilitary fighters were reported killed by the FARC during a surprise assault in Putumayo where also 5 FARC guerrillas died.
The heaviest recent blow to the security forces is however the February 13th shootdown of a US spy plane near the southern town of Florencia. FARC guerrillas are still holding 3 CIA agents from the plane captured and have offered to include them in a prisoner swap for jailed guerrilla fighters.