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by Maria Engqvist
Thursday, Apr. 01, 2004 at 12:08 PM
15 government troops dead in fresh fighting in Colombia’s southern oil region. President Uribe seeks foreign help to beef up military muscle. US lawmakers promise more soldiers and mercenaries.
28.03.2004 (By Maria Engqvist, ANNCOL) On March 18, 19 and 20, FARC guerrillas attacked government forces in the oilfields of Orito municipality in the southern department of Putumayo, killing 15 soldiers. Furthermore 30 troops from the government's “Plan Energético” Army Battalion, which has been specially created to protect the oil infrastructure in Putumayo, were wounded in the fighting. Two of the attackers were also reported killed.
Canadian oil giant PETROBANK and several US companies are operating in the Putumayo oil region. PETROBANK installations and oil wells have been targeted by guerrilla attacks earlier this year, when rebels forced the foreign companies to suspend their activities.
Only days before the clashes in Putumayo, joint guerrilla forces from FARC and the smaller left-Catholic rebel army ELN attacked a paramilitary unit allied to the Colombian Army in Cesar department, killing two troops. Six other government troops were also reported killed in separate clashes with guerrillas.
Meanwhile visiting Washington, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe won backing from US lawmakers to extend Plan Colombia, a US military aid program, with many willing to increase US military and private mercenaries employed in the Andean nation.
The Senate's leader of minority Democrats, Tom Daschle told AFP that lawmakers were "impressed" with Uribe's fight against leftist rebels and terrorism.
"I don't think there could be a better partnership than the one we have with Colombia in assuring stability and security today, and this is part of it," he said.
"We talked about raising the military cap and many of us support it," he said.
President George W. Bush's administration wants to double the official US forces in Colombia, from 400 to 800 operatives, and mercenaries from 400 to 600.
Guerrillas have downed ten US military planes in recent years, and at least 18 US personnel have been killed. The FARC is holding three captured US agents together with a number of Colombian military officers and high-profile politicians, and have offered to exchange their detainees for captured guerrillas held in jail.
The government of right-wing President Uribe has so far rejected the proposal.
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