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Looking for a terror school to bomb? Try Georgia, USA

"If any government sponsors the outlaws and killers of innocents," President George Bush said as the United States began bombing Afghanistan, "they have become outlaws and murderers themselves. And they will take that lonely path at their own peril." I'm glad he said "any government", as there is one which, although it has yet to be identified as a sponsor of terrorism, requires his urgent attention...

"If any government sponsors the outlaws and killers of innocents," President George Bush said as the United States began bombing Afghanistan, "they have become outlaws and murderers themselves. And they will take that lonely path at their own peril."

I'm glad he said "any government", as there is one which, although it has yet to be identified as a sponsor of terrorism, requires his urgent attention.

For the past 55 years it has been running a terrorist training camp, whose victims massively outnumber the people killed in the attack on New York, the US embassy bombings and the other atrocities laid, rightly or wrongly, at al-Qaeda's door.

The camp is called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Co-operation, or Whisc. It is based in Fort Benning, Georgia, and it is funded by Mr Bush's government.

Until January this year, Whisc was called the School of the Americas, or SOA. Since 1946, it has trained more than 60,000 Latin American soldiers and policemen.

Among its graduates are many of the continent's most notorious torturers, mass murderers, dictators and state terrorists. Documentation compiled by the pressure group SOA Watch shows that Latin America has been ripped apart by its alumni.

In June this year, Colonel Byron Lima Estrada, once a student at the school, was convicted in Guatemala City of murdering Bishop Juan Gerardi in 1998.

The bishop was killed because he had helped to write a report on the atrocities committed by Guatemala's D-2, the military intelligence agency run by Lima Estrada with the help of two other SOA graduates.

D-2 co-ordinated the "anti-insurgency" campaign which obliterated 448 Mayan Indian villages and murdered tens of thousands of their people.

Forty per cent of the cabinet ministers who served the genocidal regimes of Lucas Garcia, Rios Montt and Mejia Victores studied at the SOA.

In 1993, the United Nations truth commission on El Salvador named the army officers who had committed the worst atrocities of the civil war. Two-thirds of them had trained at the school.

In Chile, its graduates ran Augusto Pinochet's secret police and his three main concentration camps.

Argentina's dictators Roberto Viola and Leopoldo Galtieri, Panama's Manuel Noriega and Omar Torrijos, Peru's Juan Velasco Alvarado and Ecuador's Guillermo Rodriguez all benefited from SOA instruction.

The school's defenders insist that this is all ancient history. But its graduates are also involved in the dirty war now being waged, with US support, in Colombia. In 1999 the State Department's report on human rights named two SOA graduates as the murderers of the peace commissioner Alex Lopera.

Last year, Human Rights Watch revealed that seven former pupils were running paramilitary groups there and had commissioned kidnappings, disappearances and massacres.

The FBI defines terrorism as "violent acts ... intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influence the policy of a government, or affect the conduct of a government" - a precise description of the activities of SOA's graduates.

But how can we be sure that its alma mater has had any part in this? Well, in 1996, the US government was forced to release seven SOA training manuals, which recommended blackmail, torture, execution and the arrest of witnesses' relatives.

Last year, several congressmen tried to shut the school down, but they were defeated by 10 votes. Instead, the House of Representatives voted to close it and then immediately reopen it under a different name. So the School of the Americas washed its hands of the past by renaming itself Whisc.

Given that the evidence linking the school to continuing atrocities in Latin America is rather stronger than the evidence linking the al-Qaeda training camps to the attack on New York, what should we do about the "evil-doers" in Fort Benning, Georgia?

Well, we could urge our governments to apply diplomatic pressure to seek the extradition of the school's commanders for trial on charges of complicity in crimes against humanity.

Alternatively, we could demand that our governments attack the US, bombing its military installations, cities and airports in the hope of overthrowing its unelected government and replacing it with a new administration overseen by the UN.

This prescription is ridiculous, I agree. But try as I might, I cannot see the moral difference between this course of action and the war being waged in Afghanistan.

The Guardian

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