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Panama to deploy special force on Colombian border

PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - Panama will create an armed border protection force to combat the flow of cocaine and weapons and to catch leftist guerrillas along its jungle border with Colombia, the government said on Friday.

Panama is a major transit point for South American cocaine on its way to North America and Europe, but a steep rise in drug-related violence means the force of some 200 agents is crucial, Justice Minister Daniel Delgado said.

The force will take over border guard duties from regular police based in the villages of the Darien region along the frontier with Colombia.

Panama is also considering integrating naval and air force operations to guard its coast, and has asked the United States to provide radar cover.

Up to 80 percent of Colombian cocaine bound for the United States and Europe passes through Panama and along its coasts, local anti-drug officials say.

“There are hundreds of speed boats (carrying cocaine or cash) passing through Panama,” Delgado told reporters. “This year we estimate 1,400 tonnes of cocaine will pass through Panama. Last year we captured 70 tonnes.”

Panama is one of Latin America’s safest countries but kidnappings are on the rise, numbering 23 last year after just three in 2006. According to Delgado, half of those kidnappings ended with the victims being murdered and most were related to drug disputes or gambling debts.

The remote and rugged Darien area has long been dominated by armed groups, illegal loggers and smugglers.

Panama captured six rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, at sea near the Darien in February.

“As the (Mexican and Colombian) governments intensify the fight against cartels, the risk exists that cartels look for a safe haven. Panama could be an attractive option,” he said.

While the force could help bring down kidnappings, it is not expected to affect the flow of cocaine.

“There are other means of getting drugs through. We have seen the increased use of semi-submersibles, for example,” said John Walsh of the Washington Center on Latin America, referring to the increasing use by drug gangs of homemade submarines.

Editing by Eric Walsh