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Rice Pledges Continued US Security Aid to Colombia

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, after talks late Wednesday with senior Colombian officials, pledged continued U.S. security aid for the Bogota government in its war against insurgents and drug traffickers. She says Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has made impressive progress in that struggle.

The Bogota government's "Plan Colombia" reconstruction program, which prompted the Clinton administration to begin providing large-scale U.S. aid to that country in 2000, expires this year.

But at a news conference here, capping talks with Colombian President Uribe and other top officials, Secretary Rice made clear the U.S. commitment to Colombia will continue.

She says the Bush administration asking Congress for more than 600 million dollars for the next fiscal year to help Colombia wage the dual war against drug traffickers and insurgents:

"The formal Plan Colombia, that five-year plan, is coming to an end," said Secretary Rice. "But our commitment to Colombia is not coming to an end, because we believe that the combination of military and police and justice assistance and economic assistance that we have been giving to Colombia has made it a place that is on a road to greater security, on a road to dealing with the drug-trafficking problem and on the road to dealing with narco-terrorism in effective ways."

The talks here also dealt with Venezuela and charges made by both U.S. and Colombian officials that the government of President Hugo Chavez has meddled in the affairs of its neighbors, Colombia in particular.

Secretary Rice and her Colombian counterpart, Foreign Minister Carolina Barco, urged a joint effort to keep track of the 100,000 automatic rifles Russia intends to sell to the Venezuelan armed forces. She says the United States has concerns about maintaining stability in the region and that small arms can end up in the hands of people they were not intended for, an implied reference to Colombian insurgents.

A Venezuelan spokesman immediately rejected the idea of a monitoring scheme as an "unacceptable intrusion" on Venezuela's sovereignty.

Ms. Rice's visit here was preceded Wednesday by frontal criticism by President Chavez of the secretary of state, whom he referred to as "the imperial lady," and the Colombian government, which he depicted as a U.S. "pawn."

Questioned about Mr. Chavez at her joint media appearance with Foreign Minister Barco, the secretary of state declined to engage in a verbal battle with Mr. Chavez. She says the United States has concerns about the Chavez government's activities in the region and actions at home that call into question its commitment to democracy. But she says her current mission - her first trip to South America - is not about Venezuela, but whether the hemisphere will remain on a democratic course:

"We're determined to talk about the progress that countries like Colombia have made on the basis of democracy. The issues with Venezuela will remain issues," she said. "But the fact of the matter is that this is not a question of the United States and Venezuela. This is a question of what kind of hemisphere we're going to see and what states are going to contribute to it and which ones are not."

The secretary's mission continues Thursday with a visit to the Chilean capital, Santiago, where she will join officials from some 140 countries in a two-day meeting of the informal Community of Democracies. She is due back in Washington, Saturday, after a final stop, in El Salvador.