U.S. President George Bush and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe met at the White House Saturday for talks on boosting security in Colombia, spreading democracy in the region, and passing a free trade agreement that is awaiting approval by U.S. lawmakers. VOA White House Correspondent Scott Stearns has the story.

President Bush praised the Colombian leader for transforming his nation into a powerful example of democracy.

"The United States supports Colombia's efforts to modernize its security forces, to fight terrorists and drug kingpins, and to provide Colombians with alternatives to lives of terror and narco-trafficking. And your efforts are working," he said.

Since President Uribe took office, President Bush said homicides in Colombia are down 40 percent, kidnappings are down 80 percent, and terrorist attacks are down 70 percent. Since 2002, Colombia has extradited more than 720 criminal suspects to the United States, mostly for drug trafficking.

In July, Colombia's military successfully rescued 15 hostages, including three Americans, that were being held by rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC.

Speaking to reporters alongside President Uribe, President Bush said FARC is now far weaker because of what he called the Colombian leader's decisive action.

"It's undeniable that progress is being made," he said. "FARC is weaker. FARC is on the run. People are leaving FARC because of the generous hand that the government has reached out with."

The president criticized U.S. lawmakers for blocking a vote on a free trade deal with Colombia which he says is in America's interest because it will boost exports.

President Uribe said the deal will help draw more foreign investment to Colombia and create more high-quality jobs to draw people away from harvesting illicit crops such as the plants that produce cocaine.

"Free trade agreement for us is the possibility to give certainty to investors for them to come to Colombia, and the more investors come to Colombia the less difficult for us to defeat terrorism," he said.

Colombia is America's fourth largest trading partner with commerce last year totaling $18 billion.

President Bush said Congress needs to pass the free trade agreement for national security reasons as well as Colombia has consistently spoken out against anti-U.S. governments in the hemisphere.

"What happens in Colombia can affect life in the United States," he said. "You've got a strong supporter here. And after I leave office, it is going to be very important for the next president and the next Congress to stand squarely by your side."

Some congressional Democrats have opposed the free trade agreement because of concerns over Colombian labor protections and abuses by paramilitary units.

President Uribe said his government is improving living standards by providing security with democracy and investment with social responsibility.

"We are working to have Colombia with more confidence, confidence to invest in Colombia, to live in Colombia, to study in Colombia, to find jobs in Colombia," he said.

President Uribe and President Bush meet with other leaders from the hemisphere in New York this coming week for talks on expanding free trade.