WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Friday denied the United States is planning to set up military bases in Colombia as part of an upgraded security agreement with the South American nation.
"There have been those in the region who have been trying to play this up as part of a traditional anti-Yankee rhetoric. This is not accurate," Obama told Hispanic media reporters.
Leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez -- a persistent critic of Washington -- has said the enhanced U.S.-Colombian security plan could be a step toward war in South America. On Sunday, Chavez called on Obama not to increase the U.S. military presence in Colombia.
Obama said this was a myth.
"We have had a security agreement with Colombia for many years now. We have updated that agreement. We have no intent in establishing a U.S. military base in Colombia," Obama said.
"This is continuation of assistance that we had been providing them. We have no intention of sending large numbers of additional troops into Colombia, and we have every interest in seeing Colombia and its neighbors operate peacefully."
The new security arrangement would allow the Pentagon to lease access to seven Colombian military bases for U.S. support in fighting drug traffickers and guerrillas involved in the cocaine trade.
The agreement would also increase the number of American troops in Colombia above the current total of less than 300 but not more than 800, the maximum permitted under the existing pact.
Colombia has accused Ecuador and Venezuela of assisting Marxist FARC rebels waging a four-decade-old guerrilla war against the Colombian state.
"I think Colombia has some legitimate concerns about the FARC operating from over the border. I hope that could be resolved in conversations with its neighbors," Obama said.
Reporting by Anthony Boadle, editing by Eric Beech