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Bush to Meet with Colombia's President in Texas

President Bush will welcome Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez to his ranch near Crawford, Texas on Thursday to discuss U.S. assistance to the Colombian government's efforts to stop drug cultivation and smuggling and end a 41-year civil conflict.

President Uribe's brief stop at the Bush ranch is not expected to result in any new initiatives although Colombian officials have spoken of asking for more aid. The United States already provides many millions of dollars a year to Colombia under the program known as Plan Colombia. U.S. aid to the South American nation has exceeded three billion dollars in the past five years.

Both Colombian and U.S. officials involved with the program cite progress in combating narcotics trafficking and insecurity in general. They point to a more than 50 percent reduction in kidnappings and cut in production of coca and other drug crops. Still, Colombia remains the source of a large part of the cocaine consumed in the United States and Europe.

Critics note that the price of cocaine on U.S. streets has not risen, indicating that there is no shortage. They say operations to disrupt coca production in one area merely results in it moving somewhere else. Even some Colombians who support the counter-narcotics program in general question the environmental impact of such actions as massive spraying in remote areas.

The other issue putting Colombia in international focus is the Uribe government's efforts to fight terrorism and insurgency. Successes in this area have garnered praise from many Colombians and Mr. Uribe's approval rating is around 70 percent. But human rights groups accuse the government of favoring rightwing militia groups who have fought against the two main leftist rebel organizations, but who have also been involved in drug trafficking and human rights abuses.

A new law approved by the Colombian congress in June-The Justice and Peace Law-has opened the way for members of the rightwing paramilitary groups to lay down their weapons and for some to confess to crimes in exchange for a limited prison sentence. The government says some eight thousand men have surrendered weapons, opening the way for a more peaceful countryside.

On Wednesday, the U.S. State Department certified Colombia on human rights, releasing some $70 million in aid that had been held up for about a year.

But human rights groups condemned that move. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accuse the Colombian government of leaving paramilitary structures in place and using some former fighters as agents in the fight against leftist guerrillas. A Human Rights Watch report issued earlier this week claimed that only 25 of the demobilized paramilitary fighters have been detained for atrocities committed by the militias.