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US Could Resume Support for Colombia Anti-Drug Flights This Week - 2003-08-05


The Bush administration is preparing to resume U.S.-backed drug-interdiction flights over Colombia after a two-year suspension because of a mistaken shoot-down of a missionary plane. An announcement of the decision is expected later this week.

Officials here say Secretary of State Colin Powell has recommended to President Bush that the anti-drug flights be restarted and that an announcement could come as early as Thursday, the one-year anniversary of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe taking office.

Colombian officials view the flights as a critical way to fight the vast cocaine trade in the region and have been frustrated by the lengthy U.S. policy review which has delayed their resumption.

The flights, in which the United States provided Colombia and Peru with radar and other support to track and interdict illegal drug shipments, were halted in April 2001 after a Peruvian fighter mistakenly shot down a civilian plane, killing U.S. missionary Veronica Bowers and her infant daughter.

The incident set in motion an official investigation and painstaking review of the program, especially on how U.S. radar controllers on surveillance flights communicate with fighter pilots.

At a news briefing , State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said a resumption of the "Airbridge Denial" program is imminent. "We want to make sure that this is done safely, get it right," he said. "You recall the program had been suspended pending a full review following the tragic shooting down of a missionary aircraft. And so that process has been going forward. I can't give you any final determination on that. I would expect actually that this is something the White House would make any announcement on in the very near future."

Officials say Secretary Powell recommended the resumption of the Colombia flights after the conclusion of negotiations with Colombian officials on new safeguards to prevent accidents and rules for the use of U.S. radar intelligence.

The program with Peru remains suspended but U.S. officials say they hope to have an interdiction operation with that country going again by the end of the year.