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Clinton seeks to reassure on US-Colombia agreement

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sought Tuesday to reassure Latin America that a pending agreement to give U.S. forces greater access to Colombian military facilities will not create permanent U.S. bases. The planned expanded American military presence in Colombia has worried both U.S.-friendly nations in the region and members of President Barack Obama's own political party.
/ Source: The Associated Press

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sought Tuesday to reassure Latin America that a pending agreement to give U.S. forces greater access to Colombian military facilities will not create permanent U.S. bases. The planned expanded American military presence in Colombia has worried both U.S.-friendly nations in the region and members of President Barack Obama's own political party.

Clinton said the agreement, which the countries hope to sign in the "near future," provides the United States with access to Colombian bases to cooperate in fighting terrorists and drug dealers.

"These threats are real, and the United States is committed to supporting the government of Colombia in its efforts to provide security to all its citizens," Clinton said, speaking to reporters with Colombian Foreign Minister Jaime Bermudez after meetings at the State Department.

But, she said, "The United States does not have and does not seek bases inside Colombia."

Command and control of the bases and security are Colombia's responsibility, she said.

Bermudez, speaking through an interpreter, said Colombia wants to strengthen cooperation with the United States in fighting drug trafficking and terror.

"What Colombia needs is more effective mechanisms of cooperation," he said. "We have suffered, and we have learned from the lessons as a result of this suffering."

He said cooperation with the United States will benefit the region as well as Colombia.

The Colombians have said the 10-year lease agreement would not boost the presence of American troops and civilian military contractors above the 1,400 currently permitted by U.S. law. Clinton echoed this, saying there will be "no significant permanent increase" in the U.S. military presence in the country.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has called the plan a serious threat to the region. While Colombia's ties with most of the continent have been on the whole cordial, it has feuded with Ecuador and Venezuela over their leftist leaders' alleged ties with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which has been seeking to overthrow governments in Bogota for 45 years.

Asked about Chavez's comments about the agreement, Clinton urged more countries to "help us in this fight."

"Don't just stand on the sidelines, and certainly don't contribute to the problems by doing and saying things that undermine the efforts that our governments are taking to try to protect the entire region from the scourge of narco-traffickers," Clinton said.

In Caracas, Chavez responded that the U.S. could use Colombian military installations as launching pads for future operations to unseat Latin American leaders like himself. He scoffed at U.S. claims that the pending agreement with Colombia was aimed only at fighting drug trafficking and terrorism.

"They are thinking about the domination of South America," Chavez said. "It's part of the imperialist strategy. Colombia is offering itself so the United States can establish a system and it threatens all of us."

Chavez said U.S. officials have used drug-related accusations to oust Latin American leaders in the past, citing the overthrow in 1989 of Panama's Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.

The proposed agreement also has generated unease among some powerful U.S. lawmakers.

Democratic Sens. Christopher Dodd and Patrick Leahy sent a letter last month to Clinton complaining that lawmakers were not even told of the negotiations with Colombia, "much less consulted on them."

Given the lack of communication, the senators said the State Department should tell them what the agreement would mean for U.S. ties with other South American countries. The letter also asked about the implications of further deepening relations with Colombia during revelations about alleged human rights violations by that country's military.

Colombia's armed forces' rights record has long been questioned by leading Democrats in the U.S. Congress, including Obama when he was a senator.

Members of its military currently are under investigation in the alleged extrajudicial killing of more than 1,600 civilians, many of whom were lured to their deaths with promises of employment and then dressed up as rebels to boost enemy casualty counts.

As well, several high-ranking officers in Colombia's military, now cashiered, have colluded with right-wing death squads. One former army general is on trial for murder in such a case.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly earlier told reporters that the countries "have an agreement in principle" on the bases, but "it's going to be a few more weeks before we actually sign it." Kelly said Bermudez also was to meet with Obama's national security adviser, James Jones, during his trip to Washington.

The United States released a fact sheet Tuesday that said the agreement will improve cooperation on the campaign against Colombian narcotics production and trafficking, terrorism, smuggling and humanitarian and natural disasters.

The statement said the agreement ensures continued U.S. access to three Colombian air force bases, at Palanquero, Apiay and Malambo, two naval bases and two army installations.

"All these military installations are, and will remain, under Colombian control," the fact sheet said. "The presence of U.S. personnel at these facilities would be on an as-needed, and as-mutually agreed upon, basis."

Clinton also thanked Bermudez for Colombia's contribution in Afghanistan, about 100 soldiers. She said Colombian troops "will soon be helping the people of Afghanistan build a more peaceful and stable country."

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Associated Press Writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report.