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Colombians Object to U.S. Aid Cut

January 15, 2003

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ Colombian officials on Tuesday questioned a U.S. decision to sever aid to an elite Colombian air force unit accused of bombing and killing 17 civilians in 1998, but a human rights group applauded the move.

U.S. officials said the aid cut to the First Aerial Command Unit was aimed at promoting a more thorough and credible investigation into the deaths.

Defense Minister Martha Lucia Ramirez called the U.S. action ``strange,″ saying more time was needed to investigate. And Gen. Hector Fabio Velasco, commander of the Colombian air force, insisted that someone had tampered with the evidence.

The unit was fighting rebels near Santo Domingo in December 1998 when a bomb killed 17 villagers. Residents of the village in northeast Colombia said a helicopter had dropped a bomb on them, but the Colombia’s air force said the deaths were caused by a rebel car bomb.

An FBI forensic analysis concluded that the shrapnel was ``consistent with″ a fragmentation bomb dropped from the air.

``Until conclusions are reached in a more transparent, credible investigation, we can not continue collaborating with this unit,″ Phil Chicola, the U.S. State Department’s director of Andean affairs, told FM Radio Tuesday.

Velasco also said he worried Colombia’s war against drugs could be affected by the aid cutoff to the air force unit.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman, however, said the decision will have no immediate affect on counter-drug programs.

The decertification means the unit can no longer buy American munitions or receive training for pilots, and suspends the delivery of $2 million of fuel provided annually to the Air Force.

An official of a leading international human rights group applauded the U.S. decision to sanction the Colombians for lack of action in the Santo Domingo case.

``It is critically important to send these messages _ that the United States won’t be satisfied by words,″ said Robin Kirk of Human Rights Watch.

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