BOGOTA, Colombia – President Andres Pastrana called Tuesday for expanded U.S. military aid to combat rebels while holding out hope for a cease-fire in April.
In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, the president said his government wanted U.S. soldiers to train Colombian troops to protect oil pipelines, bridges and other infrastructure from rebel attacks. Currently, U.S. aid is restricted mainly to supporting Colombian anti-narcotics troops.
"We are asking for collaboration in protecting the infrastructure," Pastrana said in the first interview he has given since Colombia's shaky peace process was dramatically revived last weekend.
The president noted that three of Colombia's provinces might need to ration electricity following attacks by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, on power lines this week.
"We cannot permit what's happening," he said.
However, Pastrana expressed hope that the peace process — which he initiated when he took office in 1998 — would finally bear fruit.
During talks last weekend in a rebel safe haven, which Pastrana ceded to the FARC about three years ago, guerrilla and government negotiators agreed to set cease-fire terms by April 7. The agreement narrowly averted a collapse of the peace process and a bloody expansion of the war.
Pastrana said upcoming cease-fire talks will have to determine how to restrict the movement of government forces and rebels to prevent accidental clashes. He expressed hopes that on April 8, the guns would be silent, allowing broader negotiations to end 38 years of civil war.
"I think that's the maximum aspiration of the government and of every Colombian," Pastrana said in the interview, conducted in a sitting room in the presidential palace.
Pastrana showed uncharacteristic firmness last week with the guerrillas. He said such an attitude is required in the global war against terrorism.
"The FARC must understand, as we have all understood, that the world changed on Sept. 11 ... and if there is something that has united us, it is precisely the fight against terrorism and narco-terrorism."
Colombia's guerrillas and a rival right-wing paramilitary group, all considered terrorists by the U.S. government, are financing themselves through the cocaine and heroin trade.
During the interview, the 47-year-old president described his dream of Colombia's future: its oil, coal and other resources attracting foreign investors and creating millions of jobs; its varied and gorgeous landscape beckoning tourists.
Pastrana said he only needed to convince the rebels and paramilitaries that everyone would benefit if the war ends.
"This is the job we have to do ... to tell the violent ones that peace is the best business this country can have," Pastrana said.
He said the peace process could be expanded to include a brutal right-wing paramilitary group if it stops its human rights abuses, including massacres and assassinations.
He acknowledged that he may not be able to bring peace to Colombia before his term expires next August, but said he hoped it would remain on track for his successor, who will be chosen in elections this spring.
"If I can't sign a peace accord — I hope I can do so, but if we cannot — we can leave a process that moves forward, one that is irreversible," Pastrana said.