Bogota says deal reached with Washington over military bases

Colombian officials said an agreement text was finalised outlining Washington's use of seven military bases in the Latin American country for drug trafficking surveillance. The deal has been severely criticised by several regional leaders.


AFP - Colombia said Friday it had struck a deal with the United States allowing Washington to use its military bases in a move that has drawn angry fire from governments across Latin America.

"This agreement reaffirms the commitment of both parties in the fight against drug trafficking and terrorism," Colombia's foreign ministry said in a statement.

Officials here said the two countries agreed the text of an agreement, which now has to be reviewed by government agencies in Bogota and Washington before getting a final signature.

The controversial deal would permit the US military to operate surveillance aircraft from seven bases to track drug-running boats in the Pacific Ocean.

A top US general said Thursday that the United States needed to reassure regional powers about the deal, after reports of negotiations rankled several leaders and even prompted neighboring Venezuela to claim the "winds of war" were blowing.

"I think we need to do a better job of explaining to them what we're doing and making it as transparent as possible, because anybody's concerns are valid," General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a news conference this week.

Washington sought out its ally Colombia to make up for the loss of its hub for counternarcotics operations in Manta, Ecuador.

Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa had refused to renew an agreement that allowed the US military to fly out of Manta for the past ten years.

The deal is worth over 40 million dollars for Bogota, along with expanded US military assistance for Bogota's counternarcotics efforts, according to a US defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Cartwright and Defense Secretary Robert Gates also said this week the deal was not a unilateral move but the product of a partnership with Colombia designed to target drug cartels.

"The strategic intent is, in fact, to be able to provide to the Colombians what they need in order to continue to prosecute their efforts against the internal threats that they have," Cartwright said.

Colombia raised concern throughout the region, which has a troubled history of US military interventions, after announcing July 15 that it was negotiating the deal.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez led the charge, alongside his Ecuadoran counterpart and ally Rafael Correa.

Speaking in Quito at a regional summit last weekend, Chavez said he was fulfilling his "moral duty" by telling fellow leaders that the "winds of war were beginning to blow."

"This could generate a war in South America," he said.

Frank Mora, a US Defense Department official for Latin America, insisted however that the controversy was a tempest in a teapot.

"This agreement simply formalizes what already almost exists right now," he told AFP.

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