Colombia forces in hovercraft boost

By Frank Gardner
BBC security correspondent

image captionHovercraft like these will see active service in Colombia

Sending British-made hovercraft into the steaming jungles of South America might sound far-fetched, but in Colombia's war on insurgents and drug-traffickers this could give the country's marines a significant step-change in capability.

This autumn the Colombian Navy is due to take delivery of eight Griffon 2000TD military hovercraft following a deal announced in January. The hovercraft, developed over 20 years by the Southampton-based company, has an aluminium hull and can carry either 2,000kg (4,400lb) of equipment or 18 troops.

Colombian Defence Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon told the BBC: "This will allow our marines to access the more remote and difficult areas like jungle rivers and creeks."

The government and representatives of the Farc rebel movement are in long-running talks to try to end Latin America's longest running insurgency (48 years and counting).

At a press conference in London, Mr Pinzon also said his country's government was in the process of defeating the Farc on the ground.

"They have lost 43 of their leaders, including their number one and number two, and 45% of their strength," he said.

"They used to be present in 50% of Colombia's municipalities. Now they are in just 13%."

A colour print-out circulated by the minister's aides appears to back this up.

Face after face of the country's rebel leaders bears the title "neutralised", beside a date and a code number.

Only a small minority are listed as having been captured or demobilised. With the Farc movement now on the back foot, the minister was asked if his government was considering reintegrating former guerrilla fighters into Colombia's military. This he ruled out.

"We are not thinking of having members of the Farc or ELN [the other major insurgent group] in the military or the police," he said.

"They attack civilians, they are involved in drug trafficking and extortion. The Colombian people would not thank us for letting them keep access to weapons."

'Atomised' guerrilla groups

The minister acknowledged that his country's name was once a byword for criminality and terrorism.

image captionRebels and soldiers have been in conflict for decades

"We were considered by many to be a failed state," he said.

But Colombia, he insisted, had turned a corner, with the number of murders halving from 30,000 a year in 1998 to 15,000 in 2012, and kidnappings falling from 3,500 a year in 2,000 to less than 200 last year.

The numbers may be going in the right direction but these statistics are still alarmingly high.

Only last month a 43-year old US official from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was stabbed to death in a taxi after leaving a hotel in the capital. Investigators have concluded this was "a common robbery". Hardly a comforting explanation.

The defence minister said Colombia would be increasing the size of its police force by 15,000 next year.

Its security forces will still be concentrating on tackling terrorism and organised crime but also dealing with street crime, as well as addressing international concerns over human rights abuses by the military.

Mr Pinzon highlighted the twin initiative the government has launched in the past two years. The Sword of Honour plan of 2012 is a joint inter-agency effort to put pressure on the Farc and ELN guerrilla movements in 10 areas of the country.

The Green Heart plan is a police-led initiative to fight organised crime, including the drug traffickers.

"Here the support of the UK is quite substantial," he said.

"One year from now criminal bands will be atomised, smaller and different".

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