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U.S. secretary of defense in Colombia to promote relations

2010-04-16 14:55 BJT

BOGOTA, 15 April (Xinhua) -- U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pledged here on Thursday to deepen trade and security cooperation with Colombia.

Gates, who arrived in Bogota on Thursday morning for a one-day visit, also reaffirmed the Obama administration's support for its "steadiest Latin American ally".

During his meeting with President Alvaro Uribe, Grates hailed Colombia's "remarkable, indeed historic, transformation in the security arena that few would have thought possible."

He called Uribe a "hero" who has achieved great success in cracking down on drug traffickers and leftist guerillas.

He also pledged to continue to work closely with whoever succeeds Uribe, who is leaving office in August after serving two terms.

"I conveyed to President Uribe and (Defense Minister Gabriel Silva) ... our commitment to work just as closely with whomever succeeds them after the upcoming elections," he said.

The United States has channeled more than 6 billion U.S. dollars to Colombia through the Plan Colombia initiative since 2000 to finance the fight against drug trafficking and insurgency.

"We have not yet won the battle, but we will win it and you are essential allies for that victory," said Uribe, noting that cooperation between Washington and Bogota was "an example" for the whole world.

The U.S. defense head also reaffirmed the U.S. willingness to promote cooperation with Colombia, Peru and Mexico, its three allies in the region which face similar challenges like drugs, organized crime and insurgency.

Gates said he hoped to see a "renewed effort" to finalize a free trade agreement with Colombia, a proposed agreement that is currently stalled in the U.S. Congress as lawmakers fear it could cost American jobs.

"It's a good deal for Colombia. It's also a good deal for the United States," Gates said.

During a joint press conference held with Silva, Gates said Bogota was becoming an "exporter of security on the global stage."

"Colombia's success against terrorist groups and against the narcotraffickers does offer them opportunities to share that expertise," he said.

Speaking alongside his Colombian counterpart, Gates downplayed Venezuela's strong reactions to the U.S.-Colombian defense agreement signed last October which gave the U.S. military access to seven Colombian bases.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has said the agreement could destabilize the region and has countered the move by deciding to buy 5 million U.S. dollars worth of Russian weapons.

Chavez has also frozen trade with Colombia in response. The Colombian government on Wednesday night issued a travel warning, advising its citizens to avoid traveling to Venezuela.

Gates also told reporters that details on how Colombian soldiers and policemen are going to take part as NATO forces in Afghanistan will be clearly defined.

Silva said Bogota "is going to study the prospects of Colombian forces' participation in the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan", believing the cooperation plan would enforce the alliance between the two countries.

Gates visited Peru on Wednesday where he pledged to enforce cooperation with Lima and "other allies in the region like Colombia and Mexico."

He will end his South American tour in Barbados Friday.

Editor: Zhang Ning | Source: Xinhua