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Congressional Leader Supports Plan to Double US Military Presence in Colombia


The top Senate Democrat says he supports a Bush Administration proposal to double America's military presence in Colombia. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle spoke with reporters after meeting with Colombia's president on Capitol Hill.

U.S. law dictates a ceiling of 400 American military personnel and 300 American civilian contractors allowed in Colombia at any time to assist the South American nation in its efforts to battle drug traffickers and leftist guerrillas.

The Bush Administration wants to double those numbers. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle says he and many of his colleagues back the idea, and conveyed their support to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

"We talked about raising the military cap, and many of us in the Senate support it," he said. "I think it is necessary in order to continue the effective approach that we have used in addressing these issues. And we cannot address it unless we have the resources. Our governments have a mutual interest in stability and security."

U.S. troops serve in Colombia in an advisory, non-combat capacity under a multi-billion dollar U.S. aid program launched in 2000 called "Plan Colombia." President Uribe says he would welcome an expansion of American assistance.

The Colombian leader said, "The United States, through Plan Colombia, helps us with funding, technical issues and equipment. The United States is considering increasing the number of personnel assigned to help us, which we view positively. What we need is even more effective aid."

Raising the cap on U.S. military presence in Colombia would require an act of Congress. Minority Leader Daschle's support is viewed as key, since other members of his Democratic Party have expressed reservations about boosting U.S. involvement in Colombia.

They cite allegations of human-rights abuses in the South American nation, as well as fears that the United States could be dragged into a conflict similar to the Vietnam War.

But Senator Daschle brushed those concerns aside, saying he has been impressed with progress in Colombia's anti-drug and anti-rebel campaigns since President Uribe took office 18 months ago.

"We are very pleased with the efforts to reduce drug trafficking," he said. "We are impressed with his efforts in fighting terror and FARC [Colombia's main rebel group]. We are very impressed with the strength of the [Colombian] economy, and the United States continues to want to be helpful in creating a good partnership with his [Uribe's] government."

For his part, President Uribe said the battle for peace and stability in his country is far from over.

The Colombian leader said, "Colombia's problems are grave. We must not focus on recent progress; rather, we must focus on what remains to be done. In that sense, expanding U.S. assistance benefits us all."

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