|VOICE OF AMERICA|
SLUG: 2-324279 Rice / Colombia (L-O)
TITLE=RICE / COLOMBIA (L-ONLY)
HEADLINE: Rice in Colombia to Boost Struggle Against Insurgents, Drug Gangs
INTRO: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Colombia for talks with President Alvaro Uribe and other senior officials on the Bogota government's U.S. supported efforts against insurgents and drug cartels. Ms. Rice said in Brazil Wednesday the Uribe government is making dramatic progress in the struggle. VOA's David Gollust reports from Bogota.
TEXT: The Colombian insurgency has dragged on for some 40 years and has included some heavy fighting in recent days between government forces and guerrillas of FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, in the mountainous southwestern part of the country.
But in a speech in Brasilia as she prepared to leave for the Colombia visit spanning two days, Ms. Rice sounded an optimistic tone, saying Mr. Uribe's three-year-old government has been making headway against the rebels and drug lords:
"President Uribe is making dramatic progress to expand the rule of law to every citizen and every village. Colombia's neighbors are helping, and the United States is providing money and technical support. In the past eight years, with our assistance, Colombia has regained large portions of its territory and extended democratic justice to nearly three million more of its people."
Ms. Rice said the Colombian government has seized or eradicated nearly 200 metric tons of cocaine over the last year, and that violent crime in the country is at its lowest level in 16 years.
The Secretary is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Colombia since President Bush paid a four-hour visit to the Caribbean port city of Cartegena last November, en route home from an Asia-Pacific summit in Chile.
Mr. Bush also cited reductions in crime and drug crops as evidence that Mr. Uribe is turning the corner in the country's drug-fueled civil conflict, and said the United States will continue to help the government prevail in what he termed this vital struggle.
The United States has provided Colombia with more than three billion dollars since 2000 to help it destroy coca crops, train and equip anti-drug units of its armed forces, and rebuild its judicial system.
The Bush administration is asking for nearly 600 million dollars in Colombian security aid for the next fiscal year.
In a statement issued Monday on the eve of the Secretary's trip, Amnesty International-USA urged Ms. Rice to conduct what it called "a hard-nosed evaluation" of Colombia's human rights situation, which the group said is at best unchanged and in some areas worse.
The group alleged that the Uribe government's claims to have reduced kidnapping and murders result from manipulating statistics, and said the figures fail to take into account extra-judicial killings by security forces, which it said dramatically increased last year.
Amnesty International also said the Colombian government's much-publicized demobilization of far-right paramilitary groups lacks a legal framework for accountability and said members involved in past human rights crimes, once disarmed, could have complete immunity from prosecution. (Signed)
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