- drugs - Ecuador - US military
AFP - The US military on Friday returned to Ecuador a base it has been using for a decade for regional anti-drug operations, as critics seethe over its controversial replacement in neighboring Colombia.
Ecuadoran authorities took control of the US Forward Operation Location (FOL) at the Eloy Alfaro Air Force base in the Pacific port of Manta to Ecuador following a brief ceremony at the base.
"Never again foreign bases on Ecuadoran territory, never again a sale of the flag," said Foreign Minister Fander Falconi at the handover event.
Falconi blasted the Ecuadoran administration that in 1999 signed a 10-year deal granting US forces access to the site. "They had no scruples in subordinating Ecuador's sovereignty," he said.
The FOL takes up five percent, or about 38 hectares (93 acres) of the 755 hectare (1,866 acre) large air base.
The move culminates a campaign by leftist President Rafael Correa to get US forces out of Ecuador. Correa canceled the agreement in July 2008, and US forces launched their final anti-narcotic operation from Manta in July.
Searching for a replacement, Washington reached a deal granting US forces access to seven military bases in Colombia -- a deal sharply criticized by several South American nations, who fear US encroachment in the region.
Venezuela's leftist leader Hugo Chavez is most vocally opposed to the deal Washington reached with the conservative Colombian government of President Alvaro Uribe, fearing the bases could be used to attack his country.
"We will insist on guarantees" that the sovereignty of other nations will be respected, Chavez said Wednesday,"because if there is no guarantee, that means they will use those military bases against us."
Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Bolivia have also expressed their concern of the US-Colombia deal, fearing that an expanded US military presence in Colombia -- ostensibly to fight drug traffickers -- could be used against neighboring nations, several of which have leftist anti-US governments.
Chavez, whose government almost went to war with Bogota in March 2008 after Colombian troops raided a border camp of leftist Colombian guerrillas in Ecuador, has frozen ties with the Uribe administration since July over the deal.
Ecuadoran Security Minister Miguel Carvajal told AFP the handover solidifies a government policy "that wants no foreign troop presence of any type or their installations" in Ecuadoran territory."
Separately, Ecuadoran prosecutors are investigating charges that US forces based in Manta were responsible for sinking Ecuadoran ships as part of the war on drugs with the loss of 15 Ecuadorans.
Washington had been authorized to station up to 450 military personnel and park up to eight military planes at Manta, aimed at tracking ships and submersibles transporting illegal narcotics. The planes covered a 6,400 kilometer wide area in the Pacific reaching from Peru to Central America.
In coordination with similar US posts in Curazao and El Salvador, US forces operating from Manta have confiscated some 1,700 tons of drugs valued at more than 35 billion dollars, according to the US embassy.
Despite the heated rhetoric, Carvajal said the US pullout takes place "in good terms."
"It is important to recognize this," he told AFP. "This has been an absolutely adequate, calm and positive process of transition. It is completely satisfactory for us."