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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 April, 2005, 03:07 GMT 04:07 UK
Rice pledges ongoing Colombia aid
Condoleezza Rice and Alvaro Uribe
Colombia is the US' staunchest South American ally
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has told Colombia that Washington will go on supporting its fight against drug traffickers and left-wing insurgency.

Ms Rice praised the Colombian authorities for winning back large areas of land from left-wing rebels.

The BBC's correspondent in Bogota says Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is the most loyal US ally in South America.

With the help of $600m of US military assistance Mr Uribe has extradited many drug traffickers to the US.

Record extraditions

Ms Rice made the comments as she visited Colombia as part of a five-day tour of the region.

She has already visited Brazil and will also travel to Chile and El Salvador.

In the past eight years, with our assistance, Colombia has regained large portions of its territory and extended democratic justice to nearly three million more of its people
Condoleezza Rice

The BBC's Jeremy McDermott in Colombia said it was smiles all round as the secretary of state met Mr Uribe and that in this case Ms Rice does not have to force a smile.

Mr Uribe is far and away the most dedicated ally Washington has in South America, our correspondent said.

He has extradited record numbers of drugs traffickers to face US justice and embraced with enthusiasm US policy with respect to the war on drugs and terrorism.

Venezuela concerns

Under Plan Colombia, the multi-million dollar US aid package funding Colombia's fight against drug-trafficking and rebels who profit from and protect the trade, the US gives Mr Uribe's government more than $600m a year.

Ms Rice described Colombia as an ally and friend and promised that US aid would continue undiminished even though the formal five-year period Plan Colombia is due to expire shortly.

"In the past eight years, with our assistance, Colombia has regained large portions of its territory and extended democratic justice to nearly three million more of its people," Ms Rice said .

First tour of region since taking up post in January 2005
Tour follows visits to Europe in February and Asia in March
Likely issues: Ecuador's political crisis, Venezuela, deadlock over new head of Organization of American States

"Today, violent crime in Colombia is the lowest it has been in 16 years," she added.

Our correspondent says perhaps the only comment that might cause pause for thought for the Colombian government was a reference to the on-going peace process with right-wing paramilitaries.

Ms Rice said that the US supported the demobilisation of this warring faction but that crimes could not go unpunished - perhaps a reference to the fact that several paramilitary leaders have US extradition warrants pending.

However, both sides were of one mind when it came to the behaviour of Venezuela's government, which Washington regards as a destabilising influence in the region.

Speaking prior to Ms Rice's arrival Colombia's Defence Minister Jorge Uribe criticised Venezuela for recently beefing up its military resources.

"Venezuela re-equipping increases the military imbalance in the Andean region," he said, referring to a recent purchase of 100,000 AK-47 automatic rifles from Russia.

But Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez brushed off the comments saying:

"Perhaps a pawn tells the queen what she wants to hear to make her laugh. Enough of Colombia keep acting like the pawn of the empire!"

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