WASHINGTON – Amid early signs of success, President Bush and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe (search) on Tuesday discussed the need for intensifying the war against narco-terrorists in the South American country.
"I have found in President Bush a huge level of understanding that we cannot leave this fight half way," Uribe said after the session between the two leaders, their third meeting in less than two years .
Uribe, who took office in August 2002, is a staunch U.S. ally whose country was the only one in South America to join Bush's coalition in Iraq.
A Bush administration report released during Uribe's visit shows a 21 percent decline in coca cultivation in Colombia for 2003,
"Our main target now is not to focus on how to diminish terrorist activities but how to eliminate terrorism for a peace of mind of Colombian people," said Uribe. He is committed "to finish with that plague," the Colombian president added.
The State Department is requesting the flexibility to use up to 800 U.S. military personnel and 600 U.S. citizen civilian contractors in support of Plan Colombia (search), State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday. Such a change - doubling the current limits - would require legislation.
The decline in cultivation of coca in Colombia has not been offset by production in Peru and Bolivia, the State Department says. Andean regional coca production (search) declined by slightly more than 15 percent overall in 2003, almost double the 8 percent regional decline in 2002.
The war on narco-terrorism (search) has "brought us to the tipping point in our efforts to deter the cultivation of coca in Colombia and disrupt the work of the traffickers and the terrorists they feed," said Robert Charles, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement.
The United States has provided more than $2.5 billion in training, plus military hardware such as helicopters and intelligence equipment, since 2000 under the so-called Plan Colombia. Colombia is the third-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid.
With that, and Uribe's stepped-up crackdown on leftist rebels and drug traffickers, there has been a sizable reduction in coca cultivation and an extension of government control into former rebel strongholds.
Colombia's war has pitted the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (search), known as FARC, and a smaller leftist rebel group against government forces and right-wing paramilitary forces. An estimated 3,500 people die in the fighting every year.