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U.S. steps up support of Colombia in guerrilla war

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Concerned about the growing power of leftist rebels in Colombia, the Clinton administration is expanding its support for government forces fighting in the hemisphere's longest-running guerrilla war.

U.S. officials say the aid is aimed at stanching the flow of illegal drugs from Colombia and will target the insurgents only where they protect the production of heroin and cocaine.The officials say they have no intention of getting mired in Colombia's internal conflict.

But government documents and interviews with dozens of officials here indicate that the separation Washington has tried to make between those two campaigns - one against drug trafficking, the other against the guerrillas - is increasingly breaking down.

Officials say more U.S. training and equipment are going to shore up basic deficiencies in the tactics, mobility and firepower of the Colombian military, rather than for operations directed at the drug trade. Faced with a string of rebel victories, including a devastating ambush of Colombian troops in March, U.S. generals have embarked on an ambitious effort to help reorganize the Colombian army.

The evolving U.S. policy is the subject of a growing debate. At one end are officials who point to cases in which more than a dozen Colombian army units given anti-drug training by the United States were later linked to serious human-rights violations in the fight against the rebels.

At the other end are officials who believe that even the most ambitious policy proposals are inadequate and that whatever the final administration plan, political sensitivities will ensure that it falls well short of Colombia's needs.

Administration officials have also begun to describe Colombia as a grave strategic risk. If the rebels and the drug traffickers bond more closely, the officials warn, both could become greater threats to the region.

Colombia's troubles could spill across its borders toward the Venezuelan oil fields, the United States' chief source of imported petroleum, or into Panama, home to the vital Panama Canal.

Colombia's stability, they contend, is a responsibility from which the United States cannot run.