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Uribe Pledges to Keep Colombia Open to Human Rights Groups

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Tuesday says his government will remain open to international human rights groups, though it reserves the right to criticize their findings. The Colombian leader, who met Tuesday with Secretary of State Colin Powell, ignited a controversy three weeks ago when he suggested that some human rights critics of his government were terrorist sympathizers.

Mr. Uribe came under blistering criticism from major human rights groups after comments at a military ceremony in Bogota September 8 in which he suggested that some human rights advocates operating in Colombia were acting "in the service of terrorism."

Though the Colombian leader later softened his remarks, he came under attack by rights organizations, including Amnesty International, which said the original comments could be seen as a "green light" for extremist attacks on human rights workers.

The issue figured at a meeting between Secretary of State Colin Powell and Mr. Uribe, who came to Washington after giving Colombia's policy address to the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday morning.

At a joint press appearance, Mr. Powell said he congratulated the Colombian president for the U.N. message, which he said underscored his "clear commitment" to upholding human rights as he prosecutes the a war against "terrorists and drug lords."

"We did talk about this, and I think his presentation to the United Nations this morning put that in stark contrast," he said. "I'm convinced that he's committed to the highest standards of human rights and that's what he said in his speech. That's the way I've seen him operate in the time that we've worked together."

Mr. Uribe, for his part, said he hopes to be seen as the leader of a government that overcame terrorism transparently and with the observance of human rights. He said Colombia has been and will remain open to every non-governmental organization, but also said his government has a right to rebut its critics.

"We have to do our best in order to solve these problems. There are other reports of other NGO's. We disagree with the reports, and we have to express our disagreement publicly," he said. "We won't close their space in Colombia. But we'll reserve our right to express openly our disagreement."

Earlier, in his U.N. speech, Mr. Uribe said his government has dramatically reduced killings and kidnappings related to the country's long-running civil conflict and also cut illegal drug crops by 70 percent.

He said Colombia has been able to preserve a vigorous democracy despite the "many tragedies" it faces including an unacceptable level of violence.

Secretary Powell said his talks with Mr. Uribe covered the kidnapping earlier this month of several foreign backpackers by leftwing guerrillas in Colombia and said he is "confident" authorities are doing everything they can to secure their release.

Mr. Powell said he is pleased by the resumption of U.S.-supported drug interdiction flights over Colombia, and said he thanked Mr. Uribe for the so-called "Article 98" agreement reached last week exempting U.S. military personnel operating in Colombia from jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

Under an act of Congress, a failure to enter into the accord with Washington would have meant a sizeable cut in U.S. aid to Colombia for the coming year.