Monday, November 22, 2004

Bush hails Colombia's efforts against drug trade

Says he wants 'Plan Colombia' aid package renewed

CARTAGENA, Colombia (CNN) -- President Bush heaped praise Monday on Colombia's government for battling drug gangs and corruption and said he will ask Congress to renew a U.S. aid package next year.

Bush equated Colombia's battle against the cocaine trade with the United States' struggle against terrorism, and said Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has made progress in fighting the kidnappings, killings and drug trafficking that have wracked Colombia for decades.

"My nation will continue to help Colombia prevail in this vital struggle," he said.

Asked whether he would seek the same level of aid currently provided under "Plan Colombia," the package President Clinton pushed through Congress in 2000, Bush said he will work with lawmakers "to achieve a level that will make the plan effective."

Under Plan Colombia, the United States gives Colombia training, equipment and intelligence to root out drug traffickers and destroy coca crops. The $3.3 billion, five-year package expires next year, The Associated Press reported.

Uribe took office in 2002 and launched a crackdown on the country's drug cartels and Marxist guerrillas who taxed the drug trade to fund their decades-old revolt.

"There have been significant results," Bush said. "The number of acres under [drug] cultivation are down significantly. The number of arrests are up. The number of murders is down.

"In other words, this man's plan is working, and there is a focused strategy."

Bush made the brief stop in Colombia on his way back to Washington after attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Chile. That visit was marred by a scuffle between Secret Service agents and Chilean security guards and the cancellation of a state dinner for Bush after the United States insisted on security measures the Chileans called unacceptable. (Full story)

Bush dismissed a question about the incident Monday, saying the small dinner held instead was "fabulous."

"I appreciated the hospitality of our Chilean friends, just like I appreciate the hospitality of our Colombian friends," he said.

Bush also said Monday in Colombia that he hoped Iran's assurance that it has frozen its uranium enrichment work is true, but that "there needs to be some verification."

Copyright 2004 CNN.