Colombian President Denies Ties to Paramilitary Groups

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 20, 2007; 3:36 PM

BOGOTA, Colombia, April 20 -- Facing allegations that his family had ties with paramilitary groups, President Alvaro Uribe issued fervent denials at a news conference here and traveled to Miami on Friday as he tried quell a scandal that he said "puts at risk the greater interests of the country."

"Why condemn me without listening to me?" the president said in a nationally televised news conference late Thursday night. "I have to apologize for mistakes, but not for crimes."

Colombia, the top U.S. ally in the politically tumultuous Andes, has been rocked in recent months by revelations that congressmen, the head of the secret police and other government officials close to Uribe worked closely with right-wing paramilitary death squads.

On Tuesday, an opposition lawmaker said in a congressional hearing that paramilitary members met on two farms owned by the Uribe family in the 1980s and 1990s, a charge that came after justice officials confirmed that they have been collecting evidence to establish whether the president's cousin, Sen. Mario Uribe, had ties to paramilitary members.

The recent allegations prompted former Vice President Al Gore to cancel his appearance on Friday at an international environmental conference in Miami because Uribe was to attend.

In a statement, a Gore spokeswoman called the allegations against Uribe "deeply troubling" and said it was not "appropriate" for Gore to appear.

"He believes that President Uribe should have every opportunity to address these unsettled allegations in Colombia, but until this very serious chapter in history is brought to a close, Mr. Gore did not feel it was appropriate to appear at the event," said spokeswoman Kalee Kreider.

On Thursday night, in a two-hour briefing with a small group of reporters, Uribe said he would act swiftly to dispel what he called slanderous attacks by Sen. Gustavo Petro, a leader in the left-of-center Democratic Pole party who has helped unearth allegations that have put eight congressmen behind bars.

"I have not had political ties with them," the president said, speaking of paramilitary groups. "We have not received or looked for the political help of paramilitaries."

Colombian officials said the response was essential because this country, with Latin America's fifth-largest economy, is lobbying the U.S. Congress to both approve a free trade agreement and to continue providing upwards of $700 million a year in mostly military aid. Colombia remains troubled, with Marxist guerrillas at war with the state, drug trafficking continuing unabated and a new generation of paramilitary organizations forming.

But under Uribe, Colombia is a far different country from the one he inherited with his election in 2002.

Thousands of paramilitary fighters have disarmed, the homicide rates of Colombia's biggest cities have dropped to the levels of some American cities, and the state has extended control over once lawless regions. The economy has also soared, growing 6 percent last year as foreign investments have poured in.

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