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U.S. Soldiers Held in Arms-Smuggling Plot

Colombian police arrested two U.S. soldiers for alleged involvement in a plot to traffic thousands of rounds of ammunition — possibly to outlawed right-wing paramilitary groups, authorities said Wednesday.

The two soldiers were detained during a raid Tuesday in a gated community in Carmen de Apicala (search), 50 miles southwest of the capital and near Colombia's sprawling Tolemaida air base, where the detained soldiers worked and where many U.S. servicemen are stationed.

National Police chief Gen. Jorge Daniel Castro (search) said officers stopped a suspicious man in the area, who offered a bribe to be allowed to go free. Under threat of arrest, the man led the officers to a nearby house where more than 40,000 rounds of ammunition for assault rifles, machine guns and pistols were found, officials said.

Shortly afterward, the two U.S. Army soldiers — apparently unaware of the police operation — tried to go to the house. Castro said three Colombians were also involved.

"In the course of the investigation, two Americans arrived, they did not give a satisfactory explanation and were put at the disposal of the prosecutors' office," Castro said.

A security guard at the Paradise complex said the two American soldiers were taken away by police and Colombian soldiers in a convoy of a half-dozen vehicles.

In Washington, the State Department confirmed the arrest of two of its soldiers in Colombia.

"Two U.S. soldiers were detained by Colombian authorities on the afternoon of May 3," it said. "We are discussing the circumstances of their detention with Colombian authorities, but do not have any additional information to provide at this time."

It marks the latest U.S. embarrassment in this South American nation. On March 29, five U.S. soldiers were arrested after 35 pounds of cocaine was found aboard a U.S. military plane that flew to El Paso, Texas, from the Apiay air base east of Bogota.

In the ammunitions case, a police registry identified the U.S. servicemen only as Allam Norman Tanquary (search) and Jesus Hernandez (search). It was unclear whether Allam was a misspelling. U.S. authorities did not provide names.

The Colombian attorney general's office said the arrested American soldiers had been in contact with a former Colombian police sergeant, Will Gabriel Aguilar, who has been linked to paramilitary groups. Aguilar, another retired policeman and two other Colombians were also arrested, the police official said.

The cache was composed of more than 40,000 rounds of ammunition sent to Colombia by the United States under its Plan Colombia aid program, aimed at crushing a leftist insurgency and the drug trafficking that fuels it, officials said.

The U.S. Embassy declined to comment on any possible links to paramilitary groups, who are battling leftist rebels in Colombia. Washington has branded the paramilitary umbrella group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, as a terrorist organization, along with the two rebel groups.

The attorney general's office has formally opened an investigation into arms trafficking against those arrested. However, Colombian Attorney General Luis Camilo Osorio said the two Americans will not face Colombian justice because they are protected under a 1974 treaty that gives U.S. servicemen working here diplomatic immunity status.

Jairo Clopatofsky, a member of the Colombian Senate's foreign relations committee, said the treaty is allowing U.S. soldiers to commit crimes here with impunity. He is leading a move to amend the pact.

"Colombia's hands are tied by this treaty, which prohibits us from bringing any of these U.S. military members to justice," he said.

The United States has provided more than $3 billion in aid under Plan Colombia. Up to 800 U.S. troops are permitted simultaneously in Colombia, according to U.S. law, to train Colombian armed forces and provide logistical support. Up to 600 Americans are also permitted in the country as U.S. government contractors.