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Powell Assures Colombia of US Support

Secretary of State Colin Powell Wednesday vowed continued support for the Colombian government as it steps up its war on Marxist rebels and sophisticated drug cartels. Colombia is currently the third largest recipient of U.S. aid.

Mr. Powell arrived in Colombia for a 24-hour visit meant to revitalize relations with this beleaguered Andean nation. Security was extremely tight, and scores of rifle-toting troops accompanied him at every moment.

After meeting with President Alvaro Uribe Velez, Mr. Powell told reporters that the Bush administration was asking Congress for $573 million in Colombian aid during the next budget year.

That's up slightly from current levels, which help pay for military training, social investment and maintenance on helicopter gunships. The U.S. also supplies crop dusters that spray deadly herbicides on Colombian drug crops.

Until recently, U.S. aid went almost exclusively to anti-narcotics operations. But under new congressional guidelines, it can be channeled into counter-insurgency missions, too.

The Colombian military is fighting two Marxist rebel armies deeply entrenched in the countryside, and President Uribe has boosted defense spending to root them out.

"This is a partnership that works, a partnership we must continue to make an investment in," Mr. Powell told reporters.

He also said the U.S. hopes to restart an aerial interdiction program early next year. The cooperative scheme will be aimed at intercepting drug-running flights in Colombian and Peruvian skies