Bush meets Colombian leader

President backs ally during risky leg of Latin America tour

March 12, 2007|By New York Times News Service

BOGOTA, Colombia -- The risky nature of President Bush's trip to this violent country was spelled out on a television monitor aboard Air Force One en route from Uruguay: "Colombia presents THE MOST SIGNIFICANT THREAT ENVIRONMENT of this five country trip!"

Listing the terrorist and criminal threats as "High," the message - meant for Bush's security detail but seen by reporters on the plane - underscored the complications Bush is confronting during his weeklong visit to South and Central America.

Bush came to Colombia, a focal point of the war on drugs, to pledge support for his closest South American ally, President Alvaro Uribe, as leftist leaders in the region seek to counter U.S. influence. Bush also came to highlight signs of progress in the Colombian capital, where no American president has visited in more than two decades.

But, as the message on Air Force One showed, it is by no means safe; Bush stayed here for only seven hours before heading to his next stop, Guatemala. Security officials here even sent a phony airport motorcade as a decoy to flush out any potential attackers on the route to the presidential palace (there were none).

Bush's host is weathering a scandal linking some close supporters to paramilitary drug traffickers and death squads that are on the United States' list of terror groups.

And growing allegations of human rights abuses have led groups like Human Rights Watch - with new cache in a U.S. Congress now under Democratic control - to oppose approval of a trade deal with Colombia that has already been signed by Bush.

Anti-Bush protesters battled the police and burned American flags a mile from the presidential palace where they met. At a news conference afterward, Bush and Uribe waded directly into questions about the scandal and human rights that are clouding Uribe's international reputation.

"I appreciate the president's determination to bring human rights violators to justice," Bush said. "He is strong in that determination. It's going to be very important for members of my United States - our United States Congress to see that determination. And I believe, if given a fair chance, President Uribe can make the case."

Asked whether the scandal racking Uribe's administration had shaken Bush's confidence in him, Bush said no, because Uribe had told him, "We have an independent court; we have a firm law; people will be held to account whether or not they're - no matter what political party they may or may not be associated with."

Investigations have pointed to kidnappings and the compilation of an assassination list within Colombia's secret police targeting union officials and academics. These actions, according to investigators, may have been carried out by political supporters of Uribe working with paramilitary leaders.

Uribe addressed what he called the "revelations" about his administration in his opening remarks, saying, "These revelations are taking place because our law on justice and peace requires and demands truth."

He repeated his argument that the scandal had come to light because of actions promoted by his own government, an argument that critics had rejected.

"This spin has no basis in fact," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch in Washington. Vivanco said the scandal's revelations were made public through independent investigations by the news media, which Uribe's government have actively resisted and criticized, and by the attorney general's office and the Supreme Court.

Bush's aides said he came in part to highlight improvements made under Uribe, including a more-than 30 percent drop in homicides in the last four years and larger percentage drops in kidnappings and attacks, according to the State Department.

But the pull of war continues to interrupt daily life here: Just this weekend the State Department confirmed a report in the local media that U.S. troops played a supporting role in an operation in January in a part of Colombia under the sway of a Marxist-inspired rebel group holding three American contractors kidnapped in 2003.

The hostages, Marc Gonsalves, Tom Howes and Keith Stansell, Northrop Grumman employees here on a drug eradication mission, were taken when their plane crashed in the jungle. Marshall Louis, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy here, declined to provide details on the military operation.

Asked about the operation - the sort relatives of the hostages have warned against - Bush would say only, "I've obviously discussed this with the president, and he's developing strategies that will hopefully bring them out safely and that's all I ask."

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