U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has added a stop in Colombia to a South American trip he makes next month. He'll meet President Andres Pastrana and other officials and discuss Colombia's efforts to curb drug trafficking and end a long-running leftist insurgency.
Mr. Powell's two-day Colombia visit, starting September 11 will follow his attendance at an Organization of American States conference in the Peruvian capital, Lima.
It reflects growing Bush administration interest in and concern about developments in Colombia, where President Pastrana is waging a two-front struggle against leftist rebels and drug traffickers.
In his last year in office, former President Clinton was able to steer more than a billion dollars in U.S. aid to Bogota to help shore up President Pastrana and his "Plan Colombia" national reconstruction program.
But some Bush administration officials have voiced misgivings about concessions Mr. Pastrana has extended to guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, which three years ago was given a Switizerland-sized patch of territory in the country as a safe haven.
Announcing the Powell visit, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said administration concerns are not with Mr. Pastrana and his approach to the insurgency, but with the FARC, which he said has been misusing the safe area.
"Our policy has been to support President Pastrana's efforts even as he has had these zones," he said. "We're concerned about the way the FARC has used these zones. We're concerned about the activities of the FARC - that they have not made reciprocal efforts, that they've misused the demilitarized zone. They have abused prisoners, they've held kidnap victims, they've engaged in narcotic trafficking in these areas."
U.S. officials expressed particular concern last week after three men suspected of being members of the Irish Republican Army were arrested in Colombia and accused of training FARC members in the safe haven in urban warfare techniques.
Groundwork for the Powell visit will be laid by Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman, who leads an inter-agency U.S. delegation to Colombia for talks later this week.
The State Department meanwhile has welcomed as a "very important" step the signing by President Pastrana Monday of an order authorizing the extradition to the United States of one of the surviving leaders of the Medellin cocaine cartel, Fabio Ochoa.
The Colombian drug figure who is in prison in Bogota faces trial in Florida on a list of U.S. federal drug charges.