updated 7/15/2009 3:31:41 PM ET 2009-07-15T19:31:41

The United States and Colombia are nearing agreement on expanding the U.S. military's presence in this conflict-torn nation, potentially basing hundreds of Americans in a central valley to support Air Force drug interdiction missions.

Both sides say they hope a fifth round of talks slated for later this month in Bogota will seal a 10-year lease deal.

Opponents worry that a broadened U.S. military role in the world's No. 1 cocaine-producing nation could antagonize Colombia's leftist neighbors and draw Washington deeper into Colombia's complicated, long-running conflict with leftist rebels and rightist paramilitaries.

Most details of the negotiations are secret, but senior Colombian military and civilian officials familiar with negotiations told The Associated Press that the idea is to make Colombia a regional hub for Pentagon operations.

At a public hearing Wednesday called after criticism of secrecy surrounding the talks, three Colombian ministers defended the pending accord as vital in the fight against drug trafficking and "terrorism."

"We're not ceding even a piece of territory," said the acting defense minister, Gen. Freddy Padilla.

Make Colombia a regional hub
The accord would not authorize the U.S. military to use force in Colombia, and all its activities would have to be approved by the host government, he said. He added that the limit on 1,400 U.S. military personnel and contractors set by the U.S. Congress would not be exceeded.

Padilla said the deal would initially involve three air bases, principally Palanquero on the Magdalena river 100 kilometers (60 miles) northwest of Bogota. The other two bases are Apiay on Colombia's eastern plains and Malambo on the Caribbean coast.

The senior Colombian officials, who agreed to describe the negotiations only if their identities were not revealed, said the draft accord also specifies more frequent "visits" by U.S. warships to two naval bases, at Malaga Bay on the Pacific and Cartagena on the Caribbean. Colombia could also get preferential treatment in arms and aircraft purchases.

The U.S. interdiction missions that the Palanquero air base would take on — identifying suspect vessels and planes so Coast Guard and Navy ships can intercept them and look for drugs — have been flown out of Manta, Ecuador, on the Pacific Ocean. About 220 Americans shared space at Manta's international airport but were allowed no more than eight planes at a time.

About 220 Americans shared space at a Manta's international airport but were allowed no more than eight planes at a time.

The E-3 AWACs and P-3 Orion surveillance planes based in Manta were credited with about 60 percent of drug interdiction in the eastern Pacific. But the U.S. mission there is shutting down this week because President Rafael Correa refused to renew its lease, calling their presence a violation of Ecuador's sovereignty.

Colombia's Palanquero base had been off-limits to U.S. military operations until April 2008 because of human rights issues: A Colombian military helicopter operating from there killed 17 civilians in a 1998 bombing of a northern town that was initially covered up.

Signed deal would release money
A bill passed by the U.S. House and pending in the Senate would earmark $46 million for construction at Palanquero, which has a 3,500-meter runway and two huge hangars and is home to Colombia's main fighter wing.

The money would be released 15 days after an agreement is signed.

The U.S. Embassy declined to comment about the talks. Asked recently about the talks, U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield stressed that Washington would not be acquiring bases but rather obtaining increased access to Colombian facilities.

A spokesman for the U.S. military's Southern Command, Robert Appin, said the Pentagon would have no immediate comment.

However, one indication of the Pentagon's goals can be found in a U.S. Air Mobility Command document "Global En Route Strategy" that was presented in early April at a symposium at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. Beyond counternarcotics, Palanquero could become a "cooperative security location" from which "mobility operations could be executed" the document proposes.

Potential jumping-off point
A potential jumping-off point for operations by expeditionary forces, in other words.

"Nearly half the continent can be covered by a C-17 (military transport) without refueling" from Palanquero, the document says.

Rafael Pardo, a former defense minister and candidate for president in May 2010 elections, has complained of secrecy surrounding the negotiations, and worries about alienating other South American nations. The radar and communications intercept ability of U.S. aircraft can extend well beyond Colombia's borders.

"If it's to launch surveillance flights over other nations then it seems to me that would be needless hostility by Colombia against its neighbors," Pardo said, although one of the Colombian officials said the agreement will specify that U.S. flights won't cross Colombia's borders without permission from affected countries.

At Wednesday's hearing, Foreign Minister Jaime Bermudez said the agreement would specify that U.S. flights would not cross Colombia's borders without permission from affected countries. "This is a bilateral accord whose scope is exclusively in Colombian territory," he said.

It is not clear what other restrictions might be placed on U.S. military aircraft, warships or troops. Putting more Americans on the ground would raise the risk of casualties, although Colombia's leftist rebels — chiefly financed by cocaine trafficking — have no record of attacking Americans in the country.

Hundreds already work in Colombia
About 600 U.S. military personnel and civilian contractors already work in Colombia, according to the most recent figures. Advisers are attached to Colombian army divisions, have their own offices at armed forces headquarters and have trained thousands of Colombian troops since 2000.

Under U.S. law, the number of Defense Department employees in Colombia cannot exceed 800 while the number of military contractors cannot top 600.

That number would not change under the draft accord, the senior Colombian officials said. Nor, they said, would U.S. troops lose their immunity from local criminal prosecution.

While drug interdiction is the chief U.S. goal, some worry that bringing in more Americans will lead to the U.S. taking sides in a conflict in which leftist rebels and far-right death squads, often backed by the military, have killed tens of thousands of people.

The U.S. could be pushing Colombia to negotiate a settlement with the rebels, said John Lindsay-Poland of the U.S.-based Fellowship of Reconciliation. Instead, "this is an indicator that the United States is going to be supporting a military approach."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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