Colombian president denies links to paramilitary groups

WASHINGTON—Colombian President Alvaro Uribe made a spirited defense of his human rights record Wednesday as he argued before protesters and skeptical members of Congress that his nation deserves a free trade agreement with Washington.

President Bush praised the embattled Uribe as a "true democrat, a strong leader and a friend" after a White House visit. The Colombian leader got a rousing welcome at a pro-trade Council of the Americas gathering, where he denied links to paramilitary groups and said rejecting the free trade deal would send the wrong message to Latin America.

But later he faced chants of "asesino"—assassin—as he plunged into a crowd of stunned protesters to challenge recent allegations that some of his government's officials have had links to Colombia's notoriously murderous right-wing paramilitaries.

"Maybe I have to apologize for mistakes, but not for crimes," Uribe later said he told the crowd.

Once widely acclaimed as a strong, pro-U.S. leader who had tamed violence in Colombia, Uribe is attempting to clear doubts over allegations of links between government officials and paramilitary groups. He's making his 10th trip to Washington since he was first elected in 2002. But with a free trade agreement on the line, the stakes have never been higher.

"My government has not created an alliance with criminal groups," he told the Council of the Americas. Uribe received three standing ovations from a crowd that included mostly diplomats and members of the business community.

His reception was less friendly elsewhere. At the Center for American Progress, a think tank linked to the Democratic Party, he got polite applause and tough questions on extrajudicial killings and his penchant for branding some critics as "terrorists."

The Bush administration and Democrats in Congress are negotiating an agreement that would allow stalled free trade deals with Panama, Colombia, Peru and South Korea to pass Congress. But many believe Colombia's deal is the toughest sell because of the human rights issues.

Human Rights Watch is asking members of Congress to reject the trade deal with Colombia, the first time the organization has taken such a stance. Amnesty International wants to cut all U.S. military aid to the country "until human rights conditions improve and impunity is tackled."

Last month, former Vice President Al Gore declined to attend a public event in Miami when he learned that Uribe would also be there.

Some U.S. lawmakers also are vowing to take a hard look at the $600 million in aid Congress has been giving to Colombia every year.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who has blocked the release of $55 million in aid until the State Department explains Colombia's human rights record, says he supports Uribe.

"But that does not mean I agree with everything he says or does," he said in a statement. "Nor does it mean that, as chairman of the appropriations panel that provides more than half a billion dollars to Colombia each year, I am going to rubber stamp these funds the way the previous Congress did."