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Capture of IRA Members Pressures Colombian President to Get Tougher

By Scott Wilson

The capture of three Irish Republican Army members accused of schooling Colombian guerrillas in urban bombing skills brings pressure on President Andres Pastrana to end his campaign to bring peace to this war-weary nation through concessions and negotiations.

Pastrana, who staked his presidency on ending a civil war nearly four decades old, has found it increasingly difficult in the face of escalating violence to justify holding peace talks or maintaining the vast safe haven he created for the guerrillas almost three years ago to foster the negotiations. The IRA arrests, on Aug. 11, have brought even more pressure to bear, raising the specter of new violence in Colombian cities that in recent years have escaped the ravages of the largely rural conflict.

Senior military leaders had complained even before the IRA arrests that the demilitarized zone was being used by the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to prepare for war rather than to negotiate peace. Now they cite the presence of the IRA members here in the rebel-controlled zone, 180 miles south of Bogota, as more evidence that army troops should be sent back into the area.

“It is the president’s decision,” Gen. Fernando Tapias, head of the Colombian armed forces, said in an interview. “But what is certain is that the zone has been used for criminal acts by the guerrillas since it was created. This (arrest) is just more proof of those practices.”

Pastrana must decide in October whether to continue the safe haven or abandon the talks.

As part of a broad policy review, senior U.S. officials are scheduled to arrive in Colombia next week, partly to raise with Pastrana U.S. concerns about the safe haven similar to those cited by Tapias. In Washington, too, the reported links with the IRA have intensified doubts about the zone.

“The so-called FARC are misusing the demilitarized zone to abuse prisoners, hold kidnap victims, engage in narcotics trafficking and, for example, reportedly receive training from the Irish Republican Army,” State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said. “Such activities are not consistent with the peace process, that very process that President Pastrana has worked so hard to advance.”

Colombian military officials have outlined evidence that the three IRA men taught FARC rebels how to use plastic explosives and make mortars far more accurate and powerful than the primitive artillery FARC combatants traditionally fashion from propane gas cylinders.

Adding weight to that theory, a leader of Colombia’s anti-guerrilla paramilitary forces, Carlos Castano, said in a statement that he too was approached by one an IRA suspect.