- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2006

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Bolivia and the United States are headed for a showdown over U.S. demands for the return of sensitive arms and equipment provided to an elite counterterrorism force.

Bolivian President Evo Morales has refused.

The United States insisted on the return of the materials after Mr. Morales appointed Joint Counter Terrorism Force members whom the Pentagon does not trust.

“Our armed forces have the task of not turning over a single armament to the government of the United States” said Mr. Morales, a staunch leftist who is friendly with Cuban President Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Mr. Morales accused the United States of using military aid to “blackmail” Bolivia and attempting to undermine its sovereignty.

A letter from Col. Daniel Barreto, the U.S. defense attache in Bolivia, informed the Bolivian high command that $500,000 in aid was being cut off after trusted U.S.-trained commanders were replaced in Bolivia’s main special forces unit.

“Our [U.S.] armed forces feel that [we] no longer share the same vision by which it becomes necessary to decertify the unit” said the March 3 letter, as quoted in Spanish-language newspapers.

Mr. Morales waved the letter before an audience of peasant activists in a suburb of the capital, La Paz.

Col. Barreto told the Bolivian military that he would be visiting the base of the force, known by its Spanish acronym FCTC, in Cochabamba today to pick up sophisticated weapons and equipment that the United States had assigned to the unit trained by Delta Force and U.S. Navy SEALs.

Bolivian defense ministry sources said the material includes high-powered sniper rifles with laser target finders, night-vision goggles, electronic-surveillance devices and communications sets used for encrypted or coded transmissions.

Bolivian government spokesmen said Wednesday that the United States should request the return of the weapons through the foreign ministry. Mr. Morales held a long meeting with U.S. Ambassador David Greenlee that evening.

The U.S. Defense Department normally requires that counterterrorist equipment that can compromise sensitive technology and intelligence methods be retrieved on short notice if authorities are deemed unreliable.

Last year, the United States secretly removed 41 Chinese-made surface-to-air missiles from Bolivia, fearing they could fall into terrorist hands, said Bolivian military officials who were forced to resign over the incident.

The Bolivian newspaper La Razon reported that Col. Rory Rodriguez, an officer whose appointment the Pentagon opposes, leaked details of the Chinese missile operation to Mr. Morales, who used the scandal to replace the entire high command, firing 28 generals within days of taking office in January.

Mr. Morales has announced that Cuban and Venezuelan intelligence teams would provide protection for his government. Sources within Bolivia’s military say that Cuban advisers manage the president’s personal security and that Cuban and Venezuelan intelligence agents operate electronic-eavesdropping stations from two locations in La Paz.

After his meeting with Mr. Greenlee, Mr. Morales said he expected to hold discussions on trade with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Santiago, Chile, where heads of state from across the continent are gathering for the presidential inauguration tomorrow of Michelle Bachelet.

U.S.-Bolivia relations also have been strained over coca production. Syndicates of coca farmers, which form the main support base for Bolivia’s ruling Movement to Socialism, called for the expulsion of U.S. counternarcotics agencies at a recent meeting in Cochabamba. Mr. Morales presided over the meeting.

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