for-phone-onlyfor-tablet-portrait-upfor-tablet-landscape-upfor-desktop-upfor-wide-desktop-up

Colombia backs plan for increased US military aid

* Colombia defends plan to enhance U.S. military presence

* Socialist leaders blast plan as "threat," "treason"

* Colombia's Uribe solidifies position as key U.S. ally

(Adds Chavez reaction)

By Hugh Bronstein

BOGOTA, July 20 (Reuters) - Colombian President Alvaro Uribe on Monday defended a plan, criticized by regional leftist leaders, to allow more U.S. troops in the country, saying that aid from Washington is helping Colombia beat Marxist rebels.

Uribe is negotiating a deal with the United States to increase anti-narcotics operations in the country. The talks follow Ecuador's decision to end a program in which Washington used an air base there for anti-drug flights.

"The plan is to strengthen Colombian military bases, not to open American bases in Colombia," Uribe said. "The accord is meant to help Colombians regain their right to live in peace."

Uribe is popular for his U.S.-backed crackdown on leftist guerrillas who have been fighting the state for 45 years and are mainly funded by Colombia's thriving cocaine trade.

"The terrorists must be put on notice that they cannot trick us with false nationalism," Uribe added in an apparent jab at leftist Bolivian President Evo Morales, who says that allowing U.S. bases in South America is a form of "treason."

Morales and other socialist Latin American leaders are opting against closer U.S. ties while forging alliances with Russia, China and Iran. This increases the importance of pro-business conservative Uribe as a U.S. ally in the region.

According to information leaked to the local press about the talks, the United States will have access to three bases in Colombia to be used for anti-narcotics surveillance flights.

The agreement being negotiated may raise the number of uniformed U.S. military personnel, but not above the maximum level of 800 currently allowed, according to sources in the U.S. embassy in Bogota with knowledge of the talks.

But Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega calls the U.S. military presence in Colombia a "threat" to neighboring Venezuela, which is led by left-wing President Hugo Chavez, a critic of Washington and sometimes foe of Uribe.

Speaking during a televised cabinet meeting, Chavez said he had ordered a review of Venezuela's relations with Colombia in reaction to Uribe's plan to increase the number of U.S. troops.

Ecuador's Defense Minister Javier Ponce said an enhanced U.S. presence in neighboring Colombia would be "worrying." Ecuador President Rafael Correa is a leftist ally of Chavez.

Ecuador broke diplomatic ties with Colombia after a March 2008 raid in which the Colombian military bombed a guerrilla camp on Ecuador's side of the border, killing a top leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. (Additional reporting by Ray Colitt in Caracas; Editing by Eric Walsh and Paul Simao)

for-phone-onlyfor-tablet-portrait-upfor-tablet-landscape-upfor-desktop-upfor-wide-desktop-up