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US will resume controversial anti-drug flights

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US will resume controversial anti-drug flights


By ANDREW GUMBEL in Los Angeles

The United States is resuming drug interception flights over Colombia after a two-year gap.

The announcement yesterday may signal a desire by the Bush Administration to become more heavily involved in the Colombian Government's military crackdown on drug-dealers and left-wing rebels.

The resumption of the flights, jointly operated by the US and Colombia and known by their military codename Airbridge Denial, was announced by US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was in Bogota on a trip widely seen as an indication of greater American commitment to Colombia after the distractions of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The air operation was important, Rumsfeld told reporters on the flight to Bogota.

"It was helpful before and it's helpful now. There are plenty of ways that illegal trade can move - land, sea or air - and if you are not attentive to the air, obviously it becomes a preferred method."

Airbridge Denial was suspended in 2001 after a US pilot accidentally shot down a small plane over Peru carrying a US missionary and her baby.

Despite repeated promises to the Colombians to revive the flights, Washington has let a number of self-imposed deadlines come and go.

Establishing tight security rules to avoid more embarrassing accidents has been the main sticking point up to now. It is not clear what new safety measures will be introduced.

This month, US lobby group Human Rights Watch wrote to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe urging him to rein in the use of lethal force on the surveillance flights.

"Suspect aircraft cannot simply be fired upon as if they were combatants in an armed conflict," said the group's Jose Miguel Vivanco.

"While we are deeply concerned about the destructive impact of drug-trafficking, we call on the Colombian Government to fight trafficking using methods that do not violate human rights."

Washington is already heavily involved in Colombia, which receives more US aid than any other country except Israel and Egypt.

Much of the US$3 billion ($5.1 billion) given in the past three years has been military assistance - prompting widespread criticism because of links between the armed forces and paramilitary groups responsible for kidnappings and murders, especially of union leaders and other critics of the Government.

Rumsfeld's visit follows a trip last week by Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, overseeing a US-funded initiative to fumigate coca plants controlled by Farc rebels.


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