BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) - U.S. Special Forces have begun training Colombian soldiers at a jungle base, officials said Tuesday, as a $1.3-billion U.S. aid initiative to help Colombia fight drugs and rebels gets under way.
The 83 U.S. military personnel are working with members of a Colombian anti-narcotics battalion at Larandia military base, Colombian and U.S. officials said on condition of anonymity.
The base is in the Amazon River jungle only a two-hour drive from the main stronghold of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
The U.S. troops are barred from accompanying Colombian soldiers into combat. Although FARC has declared it will fight the anti-drug offensive, it has not threatened to attack the U.S. soldiers directly.
The U.S.-trained Colombian troops - backed by donated Black Hawk and Huey combat helicopters - are to seize vast swaths of drug-producing areas from FARC and other armed groups, which use drug proceeds to buy weapons.
Airplanes could then destroy the crops of coca and poppy, which produce cocaine and heroin respectively, by aerial spraying without risk of being shot down.
Washington's aim is to stem the flow of drugs into the United States and shore up Colombia's democratically elected government.
Under the aid package passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton last month, no more than 500 U.S. troops and 300 contractors can be in Colombia.
Underscoring Washington's stake in the anti-drug effort, Clinton is scheduled to visit Colombia on Aug. 30 - the first trip by a U.S. president to Colombia since George Bush came in 1990.
Ahead of the visit, Clinton's chief adviser on drug policy, former Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, was scheduled to visit Colombia on Wednesday and Thursday to meet with Colombian President Andres Pastrana and review the aid program.
McCaffrey will be accompanied by Under Secretary of State Thomas Pickering and Gen. Charles Wilhelm, commander in chief of the U.S. Southern Command, which oversees military operations in Latin America.
One Colombian battalion previously trained under an earlier aid package is deployed at Tres Esquinas base near the heart of Colombia's coca-growing region. The two additional battalions to be trained under the current package were expected to also operate from Tres Esquinas.
The battalion in training is expected to be operational by December.