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Special Report
Attack on Colombian Civilians
Linked to U.S. Bomb

(Washington, Sept. 22 ) A previously unreleased FBI report says an explosion that killed at least 19 Colombian civilians, including several children, two years ago was caused by a U.S.-designed fragmentation bomb. 

The report, a copy of which was obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, would seem to contradict Colombian military claims that leftist rebels were responsible for the explosion. It also highlights human rights concerns about the new $1.3 billion U.S. aid package to equip and train Colombian government forces, as well as questions about whether more U.S. hardware will be implicated in future attacks on civilians caught up in Colombia's decades-long civil war.

The explosion occurred in the hamlet of Santo Domingo, near Colombia's border with Venezuela, an area that is known to sympathize with anti-government guerrillas. The Colombian army had been battling about 200 leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (whose Spanish acronym is FARC) less than three miles away shortly before the Dec. 13, 1998, explosion rocked the neighborhood.

Casualty counts vary. Local authorities and regional human rights groups reported at the time that 27 civilians were killed, and another 25 or so were injured. State Department officials told the Center that 19 people died as a result of the attack. The number of dead children ranged from three to seven, according to local press reports. The FBI report said only that the explosion killed 16 people.

The Colombian military denied that it bombed Santo Domingo and suggested the guerrillas planted a car bomb in the neighborhood. But eyewitness accounts of military planes and helicopters overhead at the time of the attack, as well as conflicting statements by the Colombian military, prompted the federal prosecutor's National Human Rights Unit to seek U.S. assistance in its investigation.

Samples sent to FBI lab

Six samples of metal and fuse fragments were sent to the FBI's Washington, D.C., lab for analysis and, in its May 1 report, the FBI's Explosive Unit reported back to the Colombians that "present in the submitted specimens are exploded remains which are consistent with a twenty (20) pound United States designed AN-M41 fragmentation bomb and fuze [sic]. The resulting explosion from this type of bomb could cause property damage, personal injury or death."

FBI officials in Washington and Bogota refused to comment on the report, but confirmed its authenticity. The Defense Department in Washington also refused to comment. But a U.S. military officer in Colombia, speaking on condition that he not be named, said the United States had delivered AN-M41 ordnances to the Colombian air force in the past. 

The Colombian Attorney General's office has ordered the military to reopen its investigation into the attack, in light of the FBI report. But human rights activists say the military's denial of involvement in the Santo Domingo bombing fits a pattern and bodes ill for the new U.S. military aid package, which is limited to counter-narcotics activity.

"The case shows two things," said Winifred Tate of the Washington Office on Latin America. "One is the misuse of U.S. military assistance to kill civilians. The second is the fact that the Colombian military has consistently lied in order to obstruct human rights investigations."

U.S. State Department officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said OV-10A Bronco fighter-bombers and helicopters were flying in support of ground troops during the Colombian army's skirmish with guerrillas that day near Santo Domingo. One official said the OV-10A is suspected of having bombed the village.

However, the Colombian newsmagazine Cambio, citing government sources, reported in June that a Huey UH-1H helicopter, registration number FAC-4407, most likely dropped the AN-M41 bomb � a contention supported by human rights activists, who convened a "tribunal of opinion" on the Santo Domingo bombing at the Center for International Human Rights Law at Northwestern University on Sept. 22.

Colombian military air power

The Colombian air force has at least 15 U.S.-made OV-10A Bronco fighter-bombers in its fleet, according to a State Department source and a U.S. Air Force Web site on the air power in Colombia's counter-insurgency program. Only 10 of its OV-10As are operational, according to U.S. military sources in Bogota. The Colombian military, as well as the Colombian National Police, also have a variety of U.S.-made combat and transport helicopters, including the Huey UH-1H.

Any U.S.-manufactured plane could be equipped to carry any U.S.-manufactured munition, said the American military source in Bogota, but he thought it unlikely, for safety reasons, that this type of bomb would be dropped from a helicopter.

The FBI report said the 20-pound AN-M41 fragmentation bomb was designed to be dropped individually or as part of a cluster of six bombs from a minimum altitude of 400 feet. "Release of the fuzed bomb from the aircraft withdraws the arming wire and frees the arming vane to rotate in the airstream. The rotating arming vanes in turn release a safety block from the nose of the fuze arming the bomb," the report said. "Present in the submitted specimens . . . are exploded remains which are consistent with a fuze of this type."

There was no evidence of an "improvised delivery system," the report said. In addition, during original production of this bomb's fuse, the phrase "NOSE BOMB FUZE" was stamped on the fuse body, the FBI said, adding that "present on a portion of Q1 [a submitted sample] are the apparent partial letters �NO_E BOM_�."

"We still don't know what happened," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., told the Center. "But the fact that there was an orchestrated cover-up of the incident by the Colombian military suggests that it may not have been an accident." Leahy asked Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in an Aug. 30 letter, to pressure Colombia to send the Santo Domingo case to a civilian court for trial.

From 1990 to 1995, the United States transferred $7 billion in excess defense articles to military allies around the world as part of its post-Cold War drawdown, according to a study by the Federation of American Scientists. Both FAS and the General Accounting Office, the congressional investigative agency, have criticized the Pentagon for poor record keeping on excess defense article transfers. 

Colombia has received excess U.S. defense articles since 1993, according to the Defense Security Cooperation Agency. In addition, the United States sold $29,000 worth of "bombs" to Colombia in 1996 and another $30,000 in "bombs" in 1997, according to the foreign military sales annual report to Congress. The reports do not specify which "bombs" are included in those sales.

The Clinton administration itself has come under congressional criticism for its failure to monitor arms sent to Colombia to ensure that they are being used for counter-narcotics purposes and not as part of the military's counter-insurgency war with leftist guerrillas. In 1997, prompted by concern over the situation in Colombia, Congress enacted a law to prevent foreign security forces implicated in human rights abuses from receiving U.S. aid. 

But neither the Santo Domingo bombing nor the FBI report figured in this year's debate over whether to further arm Colombia for counter-narcotics purposes, although the FBI report was sent to the U.S. Embassy in Bogota just as the Colombian aid package was in final negotiations between the House and Senate.

Congress had initially conditioned the new aid package on Colombia's ability to demonstrate that human rights abusers in its military ranks were being brought to justice, but later gave President Clinton the authority to waive that and other human rights conditions if he determined that aid to Colombia had to start flowing immediately for U.S. national security interests. 

The president exercised that power in August because, said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, "It is in the national security interest of the United States to promote economic reform, protection of U.S. citizens, and hemispheric stability, all of which will be addressed by our planned support for Colombia."

Reported by Frank Smyth, Andre Verl�y, Maud S. Beelman and Mary Beth Warner of the Center's International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and written by Maud Beelman.

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