Colombia, U.S. sign defense pact this week: minister

WASHINGTON Tue Oct 27, 2009 5:51pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Colombia will sign a controversial security pact with the United States to enhance its war on "narcoterrorism" by the end of the week, Colombian Defense Minister Gabriel Silva said on Tuesday.

Silva, who was in Washington for talks with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, said the accord would most likely be signed on Friday.

The agreement, which gives U.S. troops access to seven bases to boost Colombia's anti-drug and counter-insurgency operations, has been criticized by neighboring leaders, especially leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, for allowing a American military presence in the region.

But Silva said the accord was a continuation of current policy and Colombia had gone to great lengths to explain that to apprehensive neighbors.

"It is another step in a cooperation effort that has lasted for more than 50 years, and specifically aimed at drug trafficking," he told reporters. "The agreement has no geopolitical or strategic connotation other than being more effective in the fight against drug trafficking."

Conservative President Alvaro Uribe decided not to send the defense pact to the Colombian Congress for consideration as recommended last week by Colombia's Council of State. The accord has been criticized for granting U.S. troops immunity from criminal prosecution in Colombia.

Silva said 70 percent of Colombians backed the pact because they want more security. He said the government had voluntarily sought the council's opinion, but it was not binding.

The U.S. government has already appropriated $46 million to fund the new arrangement. Most will go to refurbish the Palanquero air force base near Bogota.

Colombia, the most reliable U.S. ally in South America, has received around $6 billion in aid since 2000, though Silva said U.S. aid currently represent only 4 percent of the Colombian defense and security budget.

U.S. officials have said the American military presence in Colombia will not exceed the current caps of 800 military personnel and 600 civilian contractors.

They are mainly involved in training, logistical and intelligence support to help Colombia's armed forces in their fight against cocaine traffickers and leftist FARC guerrillas.

Michael Shifter, an expert on Colombia at Washington's Inter-American Dialogue think tank, said the agreement was focused on dealing with challenges within Colombia's borders: the Marxist guerrillas and the related problem of drugs.

"There is no sign that it reflects a wider military strategy in the region," Shifter said. "It is mainly aimed at locking in the Colombia-U.S. relationship for an extended period."

(Editing by Stacey Joyce)

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