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Colombia capital seen as too risky for Clinton visit
BOGOTA, (Reuters) -- A car bomb in Bogota at the weekend highlighted why U.S. President Bill Clinton will not come to the capital on a visit to war-torn Colombia this month but instead stay in a coastal resort further from security threats posed by Marxist rebels and narco-traffickers.
The Colombian government does not publicly recognize it has lost control over some sectors of Bogota, a city of 6 million inhabitants which is increasingly in the sights of the country's main Communist rebel force.
Officials have attributed the decision to host the visit -- the first to Colombia by a U.S. president in a decade -- in the colonial Caribbean city of Cartagena on August. 30 to logistic reasons, namely traffic congestion in Bogota.
But diplomats, including a former U.S. ambassador to Colombia, believe Bogota would be too dangerous given a recent surge in the long-running guerrilla war and the potential risk posed by notoriously violent drug mobs, many of whose jailed leaders now face extradition to the United States.
Anti-American sentiment is running high among the country's guerrilla groups and leftist unions after the U.S. Congress approved in June Clinton's call for a record $1.3 billion package of mostly military aid to help Colombia fight drugs and the rebels.
On Sunday, a rebel car bomb rocked a military convoy, injuring one soldier, as it passed through Ciudad Bolivar, a poor neighborhood in the southern district of the capital.
"Cartagena is very safe. Public order has been deteriorating in Colombia. Obviously the secret service is not going to want to put the (U.S.) president in an environment where there's a risk of him being hurt," Myles Frechette, who was U.S. ambassador in Bogota from 1994 to late 1997, told Reuters by phone on Monday.
"In recent months, the guerrillas have perpetrated attacks around Bogota and yesterday's car bombing is a good example of that," Frechette added.
URBAN GUERRILLA CELLS
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Latin America's largest surviving 1960s rebel force, has active urban militia units in Bogota, especially in southern slum areas.
The FARC's urban militias have regrouped and retrained since most of its top commanders were killed in fighting with the army in 1996. They have vowed to bring the three-decade-old war, which has cost some 35,000 lives in just the last 10 years, from the countryside into the city.
In addition, at least five FARC combat units, comprising some 2,000 fighters from a nationwide total of around 17,000, are based in the mountains ringing Bogota. A year ago, heavy fighting just south of the capital sparked fears the rebels may be preparing to attack an army base just inside the city limits.
Drug traffickers, too, have struck in Bogota. In November, six people died and more than 20 others were injured when suspected narco-traffickers detonated a powerful car bomb in northern Bogota.
The blast came the day the Supreme Court ruled a Colombian capo could be sent for trial in the United States -- the first extradition in eight years.
Besides the risk of violence, the Communist Party and some of the main labor organizations are planning August. 30 massive demonstrations in downtown Bogota, and a smaller one in Cartagena, to protest what they see as U.S. intervention.
Other practical concerns also appear to have influenced the choice of Cartagena -- often selected for summits by a security-conscious government -- as the venue for day-long talks between President Andres Pastrana and Clinton.
The city is an hour's flying time closer to the United States and Cartagena's imposing colonial architecture will provide a picturesque photo opportunity, unlike Bogota's grimy streets.
For opponents of U.S. policy in Colombia the choice of Cartagena is also highly symbolic.
"Cartagena was built by the Spanish and the United States is the new colonial power," said Communist party No. 2 Carlos Lozano. "Clinton is the new viceroy."
Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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