Chávez brands U.S. troop buildup 'a threat against us'
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is objecting to Colombia's decision to let the United States increase its military presence in the...
CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is objecting to Colombia's decision to let the United States increase its military presence in the neighboring country.
Chávez said Tuesday that Colombia's plan to accommodate more U.S. troops at its air and naval bases is "a threat against us."
"They are surrounding Venezuela with military bases," he said in a televised speech.
Chávez said late Monday that Colombia's plan "obliges us to review our relations" with the U.S.-allied neighbor.
The United States and Colombia are poised to sign an agreement to transfer anti-drug flight operations from Ecuador to at least three Colombian air bases.
Both sides say they hope a fifth round of talks slated for later this month in Bogotá will seal a 10-year lease deal.
Opponents worry 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 involving leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries.
Colombia annually receives more than $500 million in mostly military aid under Plan Colombia, the U.S. anti-drug and anti-terrorism package. Since 1999, U.S. aircraft based in Manta, Ecuador, have flown an average of 800 missions a year and assisted in nearly two-thirds of all cocaine seizures on the Pacific Ocean, the Pentagon says. Officials claim the flights have helped shut down drug traffickers' "air corridor," forcing narcos to send the bulk of their cocaine by boat.
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa declined to extend the U.S. lease beyond this year, forcing the Pentagon to find other accommodations.
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, said the acting defense minister, Gen. Freddy Padilla.
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 60 miles northwest of Bogotá. The other two bases are Apiay on Colombia's eastern plains and Alberto Pouwels 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.
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.
A bill passed by the U.S. House and pending in the Senate would earmark $46 million for construction at Palanquero, which has a 11,550-foot runway and two huge hangars.
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.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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