Wednesday, August 17, 2005

U.S. keeps up help for Columbia aerial drug fight


CRAWFORD, Texas, Aug 17 (Reuters) - President George W. Bush on Wednesday authorized continued U.S. assistance for Colombia as part of a program to stop suspected drug-smuggling flights.

The Air Bridge Denial program became controversial after the Peruvian air force mistakenly fired on a small plane in April 2001, killing a U.S. missionary and her daughter.

After a two-year halt, the United States decided to resume the program with Colombia in 2003 following lengthy negotiations to ensure safeguards were in place to prevent future mistakes.

Bush's initial authorization for the help with the drug program would have expired on Thursday without a renewal.

White House Deputy spokeswoman Dana Perino said assistance to Colombia would be provided for the program to focus on interdiction of "aircraft reasonably suspected of trafficking in illicit drugs."

"In granting this authorization, the president has determined that Colombia has put in place appropriate procedures to protect against loss of innocent life in connection with interdiction operations," Perino added in a statement issued from Crawford, Texas, where Bush is vacationing.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe paid a visit to Bush's ranch earlier this month, where Bush vowed to sustain funding for Colombia's fight against drugs and violence.

The United States has provided more than $3 billion in assistance to Colombia over the past five years as part of an effort to wipe out cocaine and heroin production and crush the long-running leftist insurgency.

Colombia says intelligence from U.S. reconnaissance planes is key to stopping the flow of cocaine. Colombia is the world's largest producer of the drug and proceeds from the trade buy bullets for Marxist rebels and far-right paramilitaries fighting a war that claims thousands of lives a year.


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