BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – An Argentine official demanded Wednesday that the U.S. apologize in a dispute over the seizure of U.S. military equipment brought in by a police-training team. U.S. officials said they had nothing to apologize for.
Argentina's Cabinet chief demanded an apology for what he called insults against his country's foreign minister, who ordered the equipment seized last week because it didn't precisely match a cargo manifest submitted earlier by the Americans.
The diplomatic dispute has soured relations between the countries and frustrated U.S. Defense Department officials, who want the equipment returned.
Cabinet Chief Anibal Fernandez suggested the equipment might be destroyed in accordance with Argentine customs regulations.
"I wonder what would have happened if an Argentine airplane had landed in the United States with the same load? They would confront us saying, 'How are these people daring to take weapons, drugs and I don't know what else without authorization?'" he said. "The military personnel flying with the plane would be in Guantanamo with orange overalls."
Fernandez was reacting to comments by Frank Mora, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere affairs.
Mora said the U.S. Special Forces team had been invited to provide the police training and was then treated in a way unbefitting allied countries. He also rejected Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman's claim that illegal wiretapping equipment was being snuck into the country.
"Mr. Frank Mora, who dared insulting our foreign minister, should apologize and we hope that he will. The same thing will have to be done by the government of the United States, who brought here something that had no authorization to enter Argentina. They will have to offer their apologies and resolve the controversy," Fernandez said.
Fernandez remained adamant about an apology, following the lead of President Cristina Fernandez, who called on all Argentines to "defend the national sovereignty" in a speech Tuesday.
It would be unfortunate if the equipment is destroyed, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters in Washington on Wednesday.
"We have nothing to apologize for. But we continue to engage Argentina and will continue to work as best we can to resolve this case," Crowley said.
"To the extent that there might have been small technical issues in how certain material was manifested, you know, they could have easily been resolved at a working level," Crowley added. "We do not know why Argentina decided to make a federal case out of this, but our interest is in trying to resolve this situation."
Earlier this week, a U.S. official described the equipment to The Associated Press as three satellite phones — classified communication devices, along with related software, hardware and encryption codes — that the Special Forces training team carries wherever it goes, in case it is called to an emergency somewhere and needs secure communications.
Only one of the three devices was declared, and the Americans had assumed the related equipment didn't have to be itemized, the official said, characterizing it as a paperwork error that could have been resolved quietly. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the dispute.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.