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Despite restrictions, U.S. forces training Colombian troops

U.S. Colombia  graphic In this story:

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It's "no secret" that U.S. special forces troops have been conducting training exercises with Colombian soldiers fighting drug traffickers, the Pentagon said Monday.

Responding to a Washington Post report that the training program avoids restrictions on general military aid, the spokesman, Col. Dick Bridges, said the exercises are "completely legal and reported to Congress each year, as required by law."

The restrictions were imposed by the Clinton administration in response to Colombia's human rights and drug-fighting record.

While not forbidden, the training involving hundreds of American troops each year has allowed the U.S. military to play a more direct and autonomous role in Colombia than officials publicly have indicated, the paper said.

Bridges said the training was authorized under a 1991 law known as JCET (Joint Combined Exchange Training) that permits U.S. Special Forces to train in other countries if the training is designed primarily to benefit the U.S. troops.

JCET does not come under State Department restrictions on military aid to countries with record of human rights abuses.

Report: Few in Congress aware of training

While not secret, the training in Colombia has been sensitive enough that few in Congress are aware of it and the exercises have been suspended this month as Colombia holds presidential elections, the Post said.

The same program was invoked for U.S. troops to conduct 41 training exercises with Indonesia over the past seven years even though many members of Congress believed they had cut military ties with that country, the newspaper said.

Defense Secretary William Cohen suspended the Indonesia program two weeks ago because of turmoil there.

On Saturday, the Post reported that the Pentagon has suspended indefinitely contacts with Indonesia's military because of suspicions some of its special forces may have been involved in the disappearances of Indonesian political dissidents.

The Pentagon has had "no comment" on that report.

Military Affairs Correspondent Jamie McIntyre contributed to this report.

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