- The Washington Times - Monday, June 23, 2003

BOGOTA, Colombia — The United States is spending $7 million to protect Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, Vice President Francisco Santos and Defense Minister Martha Lucia Ramirez, who are targets of persistent terrorist threats. The only other international leader receiving U.S. security protection is Hamid Karzai, the embattled leader of Afghanistan. The State Department’s Office of Diplomatic Security took over Mr. Karzai’s personal safety in September 2002 after the assassination of one of Afghanistan’s vice presidents. The money to protect Colombia’s top officials was slipped into the emergency supplemental bill for fiscal year 2003 and is part of the additional $103 million in aid given to Colombia to fight its wars on drugs and terrorism. The program to protect Mr. Uribe began in 2002, and U.S. officials say it is likely to last at least a year more. It signifies how important the Colombian president has become to the United States. Mr. Uribe is seen as a key ally in the war against terror and was the first South American president to support the U.S.-led war on Iraq, and his aggressive policy against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country’s largest rebel group, has found favor at the White House. Mr. Uribe, elected a little more than a year ago, has been targeted in at least four assassination attempts since running for office, and the United States is pulling out all the stops to protect him at a time of intense conflict in Colombia. “There is a comparison being thrown around of Uribe to Lincoln in terms of someone who can make a permanent contribution to his country in a time of civil strife,” said one U.S. official familiar with the protection program. “We don’t want the comparison to extend farther than that.” The State Department’s Office of Diplomatic Security does not plan a permanent presence of U.S. security personnel but has provided equipment such as bulletproof vehicles, barricades, alarms and cameras to the Colombian government, spokeswoman Darlene Kirk said. Washington has also trained the presidential, vice presidential and defense minister’s bodyguards in such subjects as how to operate a motorcade, vary driving routes and protect their charges. “It covers every aspect of protection you can imagine,” Mrs. Kirk said. She added that special agents taught like Secret Service agents from the office’s antiterrorism unit conducted the training. The Office of Diplomatic Security also did a physical security assessment of the presidential palace, known as the Casa de Narino, which was hit by rebel rockets during Mr. Uribe’s inauguration Aug. 7, though no one inside was hurt. Twenty-one residents of a nearby poor neighborhood were killed. “The Casa de Narino is being upgraded, with discretion,” one U.S. official said. “We are collaborating with the Colombians on this project to make sure the historical ambience won’t be affected.” In an April 28 ceremony, U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson and the State Department’s head of diplomatic security, Francis Taylor, gave the keys to five bulletproof cars to Mr. Santos as part of the program. But Mrs. Kirk said the part of the program managed by the Office of Diplomatic Security is over and has been transferred to the department’s International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Bureau. The main difference is that the bureau will be training local police rather than bodyguards for top officials, Mrs. Kirk said. A U.S. official involved in the program said Washington policy-makers are particularly concerned with Mr. Uribe’s freewheeling style in which he insists on attending town-hall-like meetings in war-torn regions nearly every weekend. One official characterized the concern as an “ongoing discussion,” and said the United States has not recommended that Mr. Uribe avoid such events at this point. Attempts on the president’s life typically occur outside Bogota, the capital, where rebel forces remain weak. To help the Colombian government communicate more effectively, the United States is also donating communications equipment that will allow it to talk via satellite transmission when land lines and cellular telephones are not available. The Office of Diplomatic Security is charged primarily with protecting Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and foreign dignitaries visiting the United States. It is rare for the office to get involved in securing the safety of overseas leaders. In briefing reporters about the protection for Mr. Karzai, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said he knew of one other case in which the office had done so. In 1994, after the return to the island of Haiti of President Jean Bertrand Aristide, who was ousted in a 1991 military coup, the U.S. Office of Diplomatic Security protected the endangered Haitian leader. But no one at the State Department recalled another Latin American leader who is now receiving the treatment accorded Mr. Uribe.

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