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Clinton Visit to Colombia Highlights Elections

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is meeting both candidates in Colombia's June 20 presidential election run-off in a Bogota visit underscoring U.S. support for the country's electoral process. She is defending U.S. anti-drug operations from Colombian bases.

Clinton scheduled morning meetings with Colombia's two presidential contenders at her Bogota hotel in an unusual gesture aimed at stressing support for the country's impending democratic transition.

Former Colombian defense minister Juan Manuel Santos of President Alvaro Uribe's ruling "Party of the U" faces Green Party candidate and former Bogota mayor Antanas Mockus in a run-off vote June 20 to decide who succeeds Mr. Uribe.

Santos, who has vowed to continue the outgoing president's tough anti-guerrilla policies, nearly won the May 31 first round of voting with 47 percent of votes cast and is considered a strong favorite in the run-off.

The United States began providing Colombia with large-scale aid late in the administration of former President Bill Clinton to help it contend with drug cartels and left-wing FARC guerrillas. The mostly-military assistance since then has totaled about six billion dollars.

The U.S. role expanded last year with an agreement giving American forces access to several Colombian military bases. The deal replaced a similar agreement with Ecuador, which President Rafael Correa refused to renew.

Mr. Correa and other left-leaning regional leaders have criticized the Colombia base deal, but at a meeting with the Ecuadorian leader Tuesday in Quito, Clinton defended the accord and pledged transparency in U.S. operations.

"Clearly we respect the territorial integrity of all countries in the region and are certainly committed to sharing information and working in a mutually beneficial way with the neighbors of Colombia to resolve any questions," said Clinton.

"I think it is also important that we look for opportunities to partner with all of friends in the region, because we want to be sure that the threat posed by the drug trafficking gangs and the continuing FARC presence is not a threat to anyone, not just to Colombia," she added.

Mr. Correa, for his part, said he welcomed the U.S. offer of consultations on the base deal. He said leftist governments in the region, like those of Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela, will not bow to outside pressure, but added that he is not anti-American and said people in Latin America have high esteem for President Barack Obama.

Clinton planned a meeting with Colombian President Uribe before leaving Bogota late Wednesday for Barbados, where she will meet with Caribbean leaders.

Colombian officials said Mr. Uribe would raise the status of the U.S.-Colombia free-trade agreement reached in 2006, but which has been bogged down in the U.S. Congress.