BOGOTÁ -- The US said on Wednesday that Colombia's armed forces were meeting human rights criteria and that as a result it would release more than $60m in military aid.
The decision by Colin Powell, US secretary of state, was immediately criticized by human rights groups, which said there was little evidence of Colombia improving a "dire" record of human rights.
Mr Powell's certification comes as the US government seeks to broaden the scope of military aid to Colombia. Congress is being asked to allow aid to be used in counter-insurgency as well as counter-narcotics missions, and to authorize $98m to train Colombian forces to protect an oil pipeline vital to US interests.
Richard Boucher, State department spokesman, said: "Both we and the government of Colombia recognize that the protection of human rights in Colombia needs improvement."
Concern over Colombia's poor human rights record led to the US Congress setting strict conditions when it approved a large aid package for this year to assist Colombia in counter-narcotics operations.
The doubts center on Colombia's armed forces. They must be certified to be suspending officers credibly alleged to have violated human rights or to have aided paramilitary groups, and be co-operating with civilian courts.
The US Congress also demanded Colombia's army sever links with paramilitary groups and hunt down their members.
It is these criteria which Mr Powell has now certified.
"We are committed to continue working with the government of Colombia on concrete measures it should take to make further progress," said Mr Boucher.
Colombian military chiefs acknowledge isolated collaboration between paramilitaries and lower-ranking officers, but deny any institutionalized links. They point to rising numbers of combats with, and arrests of, paramilitary groups.
However Human Rights Watch, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), and Amnesty International said Colombia's military had "refused to act on notorious cases" involving higher-ranked officials, and had not acted against key paramilitary leaders.
One senior officer implicated by the human rights groups in at least two paramilitary massacres in remote villages has been posted abroad. The groups said they were concerned that this move "was cited by the State department as an example of progress".
The three groups welcomed State department pressure on Colombia and acknowledged the armed forces had suspended some low-ranking officers.
A further $40m of aid will be released to Colombia later this year if the armed forces continue to be certified.
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