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Colombia Appeals for Continued US Funding for Anti-Drug Fight

The vice president of Colombia appeared before a U.S. Senate panel Tuesday to appeal to lawmakers to continue funding U.S. efforts in support of his country's anti-drug initiatives.

Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos Calderon offered a positive assessment of his country's efforts to fight drug production and trafficking in testimony before the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control.

He noted that illegal coca crops were reduced by 30 percent since the start of last year, thanks in large part to an aggressive spraying operation begun by the government of Alvaro Uribe, a close U.S. ally who took office last August.

Mr. Santos also underscored his government's commitment to cracking down Marxist guerrillas and far-right paramilitary groups.

He said in the first months of this year, homicides decreased by 20 percent, compared to the same period last year, while kidnappings went down by 40 percent. He also praised an agreement with the United States under which his government has extradited 78 Colombians to the United States to face narco-trafficking crimes.

"The Uribe administration is implementing a multi-track fight against the illegal drug trade," he said. "This involves eradication of illegal crops, interdiction, destruction of narco-trafficking infrastructure, and seizing their assets, military and police action against traffickers and law enforcement and judicial operations. All this effort is directed at a certain goal: zero tolerance for drug-trafficking and total eradication of this activity by the year 2006."

The United States has given Colombia some $2.5 billion over four years, mostly to buy, operate and maintain helicopters and spray planes for coca crop eradication. It is also training Colombians to pilot the planes so they can take full control of the missions.

But a new study by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, says Colombia lacks the money and trained personnel to sustain the program. The GAO says it will be up to the United States to keep the effort going, along with the U.S. contractors who fly and maintain the planes, at a cost of some $230 million a year. It also says Colombian police never agreed to the U.S. plan to have it take over the program.

But Acting Assistant Secretary of State Paul Simons took issue with the report.

"All of the helicopters now have Colombian co-pilots, who are fully qualified, and we are in the process of converting those co-pilots into pilots in command," he said. "Now that process is going to take a couple of years, but we are well on our way to a 'Colombianization' of the pilot crews for all of these helicopters."

Mr. Simons says the Bush administration's budget request for next year includes $731 million in anti-drug funding for Andean countries, more than two-thirds of which would go to Colombia. The administration is seeking another $110 million to aid the Colombian military in the anti-drug effort.

Colombia is the largest producer of cocaine in the world and is a major supplier of heroin to the United States.