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Colombian President Urges US to Renew Anti-Drug Program

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe says current U.S. policy supporting his government's counter-narcotics and anti-guerrilla efforts is working. He cites a record-high level of drug crop eradication, drug busts and related arrests. President Uribe is appealing to the U.S. Congress to renew the U.S. program, called Plan Colombia, when it expires later this year.

Since the Colombian government announced Plan Colombia in 1999, the United States has spent about three billion dollars to help fight drug trafficking, train the Colombian army to battle Marxist guerrillas and drug traffickers, and to improve and strengthen the country's democratic institutions.

With the six-year program set to expire at the end of September, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe urged the Bush administration and the U.S. Congress to continue U.S. support.

He says, Plan Colombia has been a major achievement. In the past, he says, there was a lot of talk and little action, but Plan Colombia transformed the rhetoric into actual aid.

The White House has said it supports renewing Plan Colombia, and negotiations are set to begin this month. In addition, Congress currently is considering President Bush's foreign aid bill for 2006, which contains $734 million for counter-narcotics initiatives in the Andean region.

Critics of Plan Colombia and other counter-narcotics initiatives in the region say that, despite the billions of dollars spent over the last several years, United Nations figures released in June show that coca cultivation in the region actually increased by two percent in 2004, as declines in Colombia were offset by massive gains in Peru and Bolivia.

Plan Colombia is just one issue President Uribe will discuss with his U.S. counterpart when they meet at Mr. Bush's ranch in Texas in early August.

Mr. Uribe, who appeared in an exclusive interview with Voice of America's live weekly Spanish broadcast Foro Interamericano, said he would also push for the president to call on Congress to approve the Andean Region Free Trade Pact. Last year, the United States launched free trade negotiations with Colombia, Peru and Ecuador, and hopes to include Bolivia at a later date.

President Uribe said he thought the U.S. Senate's passage of CAFTA, the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement, and its approval by a key committee in the lower house, were hopeful signs.

He said the approval by the Senate of CAFTA gives a green light to the negotiations between the United States and the three Andean countries of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru that are working on a similar treaty with the United States.

Another sensitive issue in the U.S.-Colombian relationship is the extradition of Colombian citizens to the United States. Under a bilateral deal, some 200 Colombians have been extradited to the United States.

Now, the U.S. government would like to try two top paramilitary leaders and a guerrilla leader for drug-trafficking. So far, Colombia has refused to extradite the men, one of whom, Salvatore Mancuso, is the paramilitaries' chief negotiator in peace talks with the government.

President Uribe said each extradition request is weighed separately by the government and put into the context of peace talks between the Uribe government and guerrilla and paramilitary groups.

He says in the case of Salvatore Mancuso, the leader of the AUC or United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia paramilitaries in Colombia, he has agreed to a cease-fire, and demobilization and has dismantled his unit. Therefore, the president says, the government of Colombia, which had approved his extradition, has suspended it, as long as he meets the requirements of the cease-fire.

Mr. Uribe, whose four-year term expires in 2006, defended his administration's record on human rights and civil liberties, which critics say have been harmed by his policies. The president, who only serves one term under Colombian law, declined to speculate whether he would attempt to change the constitution, so that he could run for a second term.