October 21, 2000:
Colombia Drug War Choppers Damaged
BOGOTA, Colombia ( AP ) -
The Black Hawk helicopter, a key element in a planned U.S.-backed anti-drug offensive in Colombia, showed its vulnerability in rebel attacks this week.
The sophisticated armored choppers are the most expensive component of a $1.3 billion U.S. aid package intended to stem cocaine production in the South American country.
U.S. and Colombian officials expect their firepower, speed and troop-carrying capacity to be decisive in ousting guerrillas from southern drug-producing regions, clearing the way for the eradication of coca crops
But two separate incidents this week demonstrated that the U.S.-made helicopters, worth about $13 million a piece, are not invincible.
On Friday, ground fire from the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, pierced an army Black Hawk on a mission to protect oil workers fixing a pipeline bombed by guerrillas in eastern Arauca State.
Bullets hit the pilot in one leg, disabling him, and killed a soldier in the back of the helicopter, the army's 18th Brigade reported Saturday. The Black Hawk, flown back to base by the co-pilot, was not seriously damaged.
One day earlier, 22 soldiers died when fire from FARC rebels apparently downed an army Black Hawk ferrying troops into combat in northwest Antioquia State.
The crash deaths, combined with 30 troops killed in ground combat in the same battle, constituted some of the military's heaviest losses in years. Two police officers also died in the battle.
``There are all kinds of things that could bring them down,'' U.S. Army Col. Ron Williams of the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command said Saturday of the Black Hawks.
``Surface-to-air missiles could bring them down, even small-arms fire. It would depends on how the aircraft are armored,'' he added.
The army initially called Thursday's crash an accident, saying high winds slammed the helicopter's tail into the ground.
But Army chief Jorge Mora acknowledged Friday that the Black Hawk sustained numerous shots and that its pilot and co-pilot were found with fatal gunshot wounds.
Rebel fire may have disabled the pilots as they were trying to land or damaged the Black Hawk enough to cause it to crash, he said, refusing to rule out an accident.
In an editorial Saturday, Bogota's leading newspaper, El Tiempo, said the Black Hawk crash - and the death of seven airmen last month when an air force plane crashed during fighting the rebels - raised concerns about Colombia's air combat capabilities.
Rebels have indicated that they might buy surface-to-air missiles to counter the U.S-donated Black Hawks, expected to begin arriving in Colombia next year. The Black Hawks damaged this week were purchased by the Colombian military and are not part of the U.S. aid package.
Despite the setbacks, the rebels are outmatched, said former Colombian national security advisor Armando Borrero.
``Guerrillas attack the helicopters all the time, but the attacks almost never result in any serious problems,'' he said. ``The Black Hawks have greatly improved the power of the military.''
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