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Oil inflames Colombia's civil war

Bush seeks $98 million to help Bogotá battle guerrilla pipeline saboteurs.

By Martin HodgsonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 5, 2002



ARAUCA, COLOMBIA

From the air, the Caño Limón pipeline is invisible. The 480-mile tube is buried 6 feet below ground, but its route through the rolling Colombian prairie is marked by a swathe of black oil slicks and burned ground, the result of repeated bomb attacks by leftist rebels.

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The pipeline, which links the oil field near the border with Venezuela to a port on Colombia's Caribbean coast, has been punctured so many times in the last 16 years that locals call it "the flute." Some 2.9 million barrels of crude oil have leaked into the soil and rivers - about 11 times the amount spilled in the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.

Now the US government is seeking Congressional approval for $98 million to provide equipment and training for a new Colombian Army brigade to guard the oil duct. If approved, it would mark a major shift in US policy, allowing direct support for counterinsurgency operations against guerrilla saboteurs.

Oil is Colombia's biggest foreign-currency earner, and US officials say the aid is essential for the Colombian government, a key ally in the US war on drugs. But critics say it is still unclear whose interests are being served.

Last year, 170 bomb attacks disabled the pipeline for most of the year. It cost Occidental Petroleum, which runs the field, $75 million in profits - and cost the government $430 million in oil revenue.

"We're talking about something which is fundamental for the economy of the country. Of course there is a US interest, but [with the attacks] it is Colombia which is losing out," says an Occidental spokesman.

As the country spirals deeper into civil war, some fear that the aid package signals that the Bush government is more concerned with protecting the interests of American companies than in helping to end a 38-year conflict.

"It's a way of saying that US interests trump everything else. There are real and legitimate reasons to protect the pipeline, but given all that Colombia needs, is this really a priority?" says Robin Kirk, a Colombia analyst at Human Rights Watch.

Most of the rebel attacks occur in the first 75 miles, where the duct passes through the wild frontier zone of Arauca state, which has been a rebel stronghold for decades.

Colombia's two largest guerrilla armies, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), oppose foreign involvement in the nation's oil industry and, according to the Colombian military, the rebels hope that the pipeline attacks will weaken the government by depriving it of foreign earnings.

"The intensity of the attacks shows that the pipeline is a fundamental strategic target," says Brig. Gen. Carlos Lemus, commander of the 18th Brigade, and the man who will oversee the new unit if and when it is formed.

The brigade's badge shows a soldier guarding an oil well under a blazing prairie sun, and according to General Lemus, two-thirds of Colombia's troops are already dedicated to defending the oil infrastructure. But the Army is incapable of protecting the entire pipeline, which can be punctured with a relatively small explosive.

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