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S. American leaders rebuff Clinton appeal on Colombia


BRASILIA, Brazil - The presidents of South America's 12 countries rebuffed yesterday President Clinton's appeal, made earlier this week, that they endorse a new, American-backed military and police offensive aimed at drug trafficking and guerrilla groups in Colombia.

In a joint declaration issued at the end of a two-day summit, the leaders expressed support for efforts by Colombia's president, Andres Pastrana, to negotiate an end to four decades of civil conflict.

But they pointedly omitted any mention of Pastrana's plan to use military means to weaken the cocaine cartels and the left-wing guerrilla and right-wing death squads that are allied with them.

Asked at a news conference about the deepening political and military crisis in Colombia, President Ricardo Lagos of Chile made the distinction explicit. The presidents fully support "the peace process, which implies negotiations," he said, and which is, in their view, "distinct from the problem of narcotics trafficking."

During his visit to Colombia on Wednesday, Clinton urged that country's neighbors to "be strongly supportive of President Pastrana and Plan Colombia," a comprehensive $7.5 billion package whose military component is largely supplied by the United States.

Clinton acknowledged that increased U.S. aid to counter-narcotics operations in Colombia, if successful, was likely to "cause the problem to spill over the borders" into neighboring countries such as Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. But he also said the United States was willing to provide "a substantial amount of money to help other countries deal with those problems at the border when they start," an offer that has received no reply.

Looming over the meeting here was concern at what Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez, described as the threat of "the Vietnamization of the entire Amazon region" as a result of increased American support for Colombia. From the moment he arrived here, Pastrana sought both to refute such notions and to enlist his colleagues in a broader, regional counter-narcotics campaign.

Pastrana's assurances, however, have been greeted with skepticism, if not by his fellow regional leaders then certainly by the news media and by public opinion across the continent. Yesterday, Colombia's foreign minister, Guillermo Fernandez de Soto, vented his government's frustration in remarks to reporters:

"It is unjust and counterintuitive that Colombia's efforts to strengthen itself to fight the threat it faces are the subject of complaints when no one criticizes the arms buildup of the insurgents."

The summit meeting was a Brazilian initiative drawn up this year and initially intended to focus on issues of economics, trade and infrastructure.

The presidents agreed to begin negotiations aimed at fusing the continent's two main trading groups: the Mercosur group (Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay) and the Andean Community (Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela).

The leaders also approved a so-called democracy clause that would expel from their ranks any government that takes power through a coup or other nondemocratic means.

The measure is aimed mainly at Ecuador and Paraguay, where there were threats of that sort earlier this year, but it was signed by all 12 presidents.

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