Terror fight moves to the fore in U.S.-Colombia talks
BY TIM JOHNSON
WASHINGTON - President-elect Alvaro Uribe of Colombia emerged from the White House on Thursday declaring that he had found ''great determination'' in President Bush to help Colombia's struggle against drug-financed terrorism.
''We are on the right track,'' Uribe said after a half-hour meeting with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. Bush stopped in for part of the session.
For their part, U.S. officials voiced resolve to help embattled Colombia combat outlaw armies roaming the country, even as analysts warned of new signs that the South American nation's countryside is falling deeper into the hands of guerrillas and outlaw militias.
''We are going to help Colombia in everything that may be necessary
for it to win this war,'' said Otto Reich, an assistant secretary of state
who attended several
meetings with Uribe.
Uribe's meeting with Bush marked a watershed of sorts in U.S.-Colombian relations. For the first time in probably two decades, another issue -- counter-terrorism -- moved sharply to the fore alongside drug trafficking to dominate bilateral relations.
Since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, U.S. officials have repeatedly stressed that Colombia faces a terrorist threat from outlaw groups fueled by the narcotics industry.
Two leftist rebel groups and a rightist paramilitary army in Colombia are now on a U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations.
''I have found great determination in President Bush to help in everything to do with the struggle against terrorism,'' Uribe said after the White House meeting.
In a major shift, Congress is likely within days to approve a Bush administration proposal to allow U.S. aid to Colombia to be used for counter-insurgency, as well as counter-narcotics, programs.
Washington has allotted nearly $2 billion in aid to Colombia in the past three years.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush ''reiterated U.S. support for Colombia in its efforts to counter both narcotics trafficking [and] terrorism'' and noted that the two leaders ``talked about the need to fight terrorism within the framework of democratic institutions and full respect for human rights.''
Uribe, who takes office Aug. 7, won a landslide victory in May among Colombians fed up with terrorist bombings, attacks and kidnappings.
Reich said the Colombian told the White House he wants to double the nation's corps of professional soldiers to 100,000 men and plans ``to increase the proportion of the budget dedicated to the war.''
Uribe said he would change the nature of Plan Colombia, a U.S.-backed
plan designed to reduce illicit cocaine and heroin production in the nation,
to boost air interdiction of drug-laden aircraft along with more efficient
interdiction on highways, rivers and the sea.