September 14, 2007 / 2:11 AM / 12 years ago

U.S. explores alternatives for Ecuador air base

CARTAGENA, Colombia (Reuters) - Washington is exploring alternatives with other Latin American countries if Ecuador ends its lease to use Manta air base for counter-narcotics flights, the chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said on Thursday.

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, a leftist ally of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, has refused to extend the Pentagon’s contract in Manta, which U.S. officials say has been vital in surveillance operations on Pacific drug-running routes.

“There are nations who are discussing with us that opportunity,” Marine Gen. Peter Pace told reporters in Cartagena when asked whether Washington was looking at options beyond Manta.

Pace is ending his term this month as the Joint Chiefs’ chairman.

Pace would not name which countries were in discussions, but U.S. officials speaking on condition of anonymity said earlier this year Peru and Colombia had approached them with offers. Both countries denied that.

Counter-narcotics operations have become one of the U.S. military’s key missions in Latin America. Colombia and Peru receive the largest amount of U.S. military aid in the region.

Colombia, the world’s top producer of cocaine, gets the largest U.S. aid package outside of the Middle East and conservative President Alvaro Uribe has become a key White House ally in the region.

Correa has joined Chavez in bashing the Bush administration and promoting a socialist agenda as an alternative to U.S. trade and foreign policies, including the Plan Colombia anti-drug program.

Helped by U.S. funds, Uribe has sent troops to bolster security, push back left-wing rebels fighting Latin America’s oldest insurgency and capture several top cocaine traffickers.

But the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebels keep fighting in remote rural areas and the Andean country still exports at least 600 metric tons of cocaine each year, mainly to the United States and Europe.

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