Colombian guerrillas get training

Three IRA members were arrested leaving a FARC stronghold on Saturday, raising new questions.

It is the oldest and most powerful insurgent force in Latin America. Long criticized for its dependence on violence, kidnapping, and illegal drug kickbacks, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has seldom worried about public relations.

In the past few years, however, the 17,000-strong group has factored international diplomacy into its political campaign for peasant rights, wooing visitors from Queen Noor of Jordan to Jim Kinsey, president of America Online.

But recent events show their international contacts aren't confined to the search for peace. Three members of the Irish Republican Army were arrested Saturday at Bogotá's international airport as they were leaving a FARC stronghold and preparing to fly to Paris. It's apparently the first proven alliance between FARC and an international terrorist organization.

It's too early to tell how the revelations will affect the stop-start peace process. But Colombian military leaders now suspect FARC is preparing to bring their war to cities, which threatens bring a new level of violence to the 37-year-old conflict.

FARC controls many rural areas, but it has never found a foothold in urban centers, where most of the Colombian population lives.

"The IRA's specialty is urban tactics, and the FARC have always been a peasant group. They're looking at new models," says Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert at the Center for International Policy in Washington. "If I was a Colombian, that would make me really nervous."

According to Army commander Gen. Jorge Enrique Mora, the three Irishmen spent more than a month in a FARC stronghold, training the rebel cadres in terrorist tactics, handling explosives, and manufacturing car bombs and homemade weapons.

"The presence of these IRA advisers just proves that the FARC are realizing plans which they laid down 20 years ago," says Alfredo Rangel, an adviser to the Colombian Defence Ministry. "They're negotiating, but at the same time, they're preparing for war."

It's also unclear what kind of relationship exists between the two organizations - whether there is an official alliance or whether the three men were freelancing. But observers here are skeptical that FARC is seeking closer ties with anyone.

According to one ex-guerrilla, the relationship between the two groups is strictly business.

"I don't see much ideological affinity between the IRA and the FARC. This is simply a technical relationship," says Congressman Gustavo Petro, a former commander of the M19 militia, which demobilized in 1990 and became a political party.

"It shouldn't surprise us. There's a long history of cooperation between terrorist organizations," says Neil Livingstone, a Washington terrorism expert.

State investigators say that forensic tests proved the three men had recently handled four kinds of explosives, but also cocaine and amphetamines, leading to speculation that they may have received their payment in the form of drugs.

"Logically, there had to be a payment for the IRA, which could have been in drugs, arms, or money," says General Mora.

While other Colombian guerrilla factions developed wide-reaching support networks in the region, FARC has never relied on international support to sustain its war, says Mr. Rangel.

Certainly, the group has never had the widespread political appeal enjoyed by the Central American rebels or Mexico's Zapatistas.

"The FARC make it very difficult for anyone to support them. There are plenty of people on the left who would agree with the rhetoric they put out, but they're just repulsed when [FARC] recruits children, blows up oil pipelines, and carries out massacres," says Mr. Isacson.

While FARC may lack close friends, in recent years the group has launched an active campaign of international diplomacy, seeking to legitimize its cause in the world's eyes.

FARC has offices in Mexico and Brazil, and it has sent envoys to meet with diplomats and foreign governments. The group even had secret contacts with the US State Department in 1998, before the US broke off all ties, following the 1999 murder of three indigenous activists whom FARC guerrillas mistook for CIA spies.

Last year, six senior FARC representatives visited several European countries on a fact-finding trip that government negotiators hoped would open the Marxist rebels' eyes to the benefits of capitalism.

In Colombia, a steady stream of diplomats, journalists, and politicians have visited the rebel stronghold to meet FARC leaders. US congressmen and other international business and political leaders have also visited the enclave.

Meanwhile, various European countries have been lending behind-the-scenes support to negotiations with the government. Peace activists hoped the international presence would motivate FARC to show it is serious about peace, and make rebels more accountable for their actions.

It's unclear how the revelation of IRA contacts will affect the peace talks. The government and FARC have been unable to agree on terms for a cease-fire. And recent events suggest that FARC is still deaf to outside criticism.

Last month, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan condemned the July 15 abduction of Alan Jara, a former state governor here, who was snatched from a UN vehicle by a rebel squad. FARC leaders, who accuse Mr. Jara of supporting right-wing paramilitaries, were unmoved by Mr. Annan's intervention, and plan to subject the kidnapped politician to a "people's trial.''

More recently, the European Union warned that its support for the peace talks was "gravely compromised" by FARC's violations of international humanitarian law.

"The FARC's international strategy might just be to defy everybody. They're willing to go it alone, follow their own model, and not really worry about international politics," Isacson says."They'll keep meeting with any foreigners who are willing, because that legitimizes their cause. But they keep trying to get away with as much as possible."

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