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U.S. Upgrades Colombian Helicopters

June 26, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ To help Colombia fight drug traffickers, the United States has agreed to upgrade 10 helicopters used by Colombia’s National Police and to provide six new helicopters, a Clinton administration official said Friday.

The decision ends long months of acrimony with Congress over the issue and frees millions of dollars in South American anti-drug funds that Congress had frozen.

The upgraded helicopters and the new Bell 212 models will give the Colombian police the ability to fly at higher altitudes. This will improve Colombia’s ability to eradicate its opium poppy crop, which normally grows at altitudes of 8,000 to 10,000 feet, often in inaccessible jungle areas.

The agreement represented a compromise with members of Congress who had been arguing that Colombia’s UH-1H helicopters should be replaced by Black Hawks, which can fly at high altitudes and carry more troops. Leading the fight in Congress for the Black Hawks was the chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Rep. Benjamin Gilman, R-N.Y.

The administration opposed the proposal primarily on the basis of cost. Officials said the administration would have had to reallocate antidrug funds earmarked for Peru and Bolivia if Congress had insisted on the Black Hawk deal. Another drawback, the officials said, was that the Black Hawks required different training and maintenance compared with the UH-1H helicopters, known informally as Hueys.

According to the officials, the decision to upgrade the UH-1H’s to ``Super Hueys″ will enable the administration to continue its antinarcotics programs in Peru and Bolivia.

Gilman had ordered a freeze on anti-drug funds for those countries as a result of the impasse but has now agreed to release the money.

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