Uribe Faces EU Questions on Human Rights.

A top European Union official warned Colombian President Alvaro Uribe that he faces a barrage of questions about his government's respect for the rule of law when he visits Europe next month to win backing for his tough, U.S-backed security policies.

EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten made the comments Thursday at the end of a two-day visit during which he angered government leaders with thinly veiled criticism of Colombia's new anti-terrorism laws.

The legislation, adopted by Congress last month, gives the armed forces sweeping judicial powers to detain suspects without warrants, tap phones and search homes as part of Uribe's campaign to crush a four-decade leftist insurgency.

Human rights groups, however, warned the bill could lead government forces to commit abuses, while the United Nations said it was incompatible with international law.

``Many people will want to discuss with him (Uribe) the recommendations of the United Nations,'' Patten said at a news conference in Bogota. ``The improvement in civil liberties and human rights can and must go hand-in-hand with the overcoming of violence.''

Uribe, a close U.S. ally, is scheduled to tour EU headquarters in Belgium, Germany and Italy on Feb. 7-14, the president's office said, in a bid to secure political and financial backing for his policies. The United States is funding much of the military buildup.

Patten said the government's commitment to basic freedoms ``is important to all of us in Europe who want to play as generous a part as possible to help Colombia overcome its problems.''

Similar comments over the past few days led Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos, in an interview with daily El Tiempo, to denounce Europe for having ``a neocolonial concept of justice in Colombia'' and for treating the country as a ``banana republic.''

On Thursday, however, Santos glossed over the harsh words, saying: ``It is very clear the EU has a commitment to Colombia and Colombia to the EU.''

Colombian Foreign Minister Carolina Barco said after meetings with Patten that ``we know we have a partner in the EU, which is accompanying us in the struggle against terrorism.''

Patten also urged Colombia's two leftist rebel groups to release dozens of hostages and enter peace talks with the government.

``The FARC should simply engage in negotiations and not make impossible demands,'' Patten said earlier Thursday as he toured EU-funded ``peace laboratories'' in northern Colombia. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, has repeatedly rebuffed the government's appeals to declare a cease-fire and resume peace talks that collapsed two years ago.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's top envoy in Colombia, James LeMoyne, who also attended Thursday's news conference, said he still holds out hope that a negotiated solution to the civil war could be found.

Uribe, in a speech Thursday to diplomats, repeated that his government would not enter peace talks until the armed groups halt their violence. ``For this government, it is urgent to secure a cessation of hostilities,'' he said.

Colombia's civil war, which pits the FARC and a smaller rebel group against right-wing paramilitary factions and government forces, kills an estimated 3,500 people, mostly civilians, every year.

[Source: NY Times Online, NY, Usa, 23Jan04]

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