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Rice winds up Colombian visit

world Updated: Jan 27, 2008 12:20 IST

IANS
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US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has rounded off her two-day visit to Colombia, pledging more support to the country.

The US secretary of state, who arrived in Colombia on Friday with an aim to promote a free trade pact between Washington and Bogota, met top Colombian leaders, including President Alvaro Uribe and other top leaders in Medellin, the country's second biggest city and business capital, EFE news agency reported on Sunday.

Rice was heading a high-level delegation, including nine Democratic lawmakers, who have been sceptical of the trade agreement with the Andean country.

She acknowledged that although Colombia is still wracked by violence stemming from its lengthy civil conflict, it is a staunch ally of Washington in the war on drugs, and she emphasized that the country deserves continued US support.

"The Bush administration's support for the free-trade deal is not because we believe that the Colombian story is perfect or complete, but because we believe that in the context of the growth and economic activity that the free trade agreement will produce, Colombia will be better able to meet its problems," Rice told journalists after her meeting with Uribe.

She also said it is important for Washington to make clear its support for a "firm and good" ally like Bogota, and she called this the central element in a "wise" policy for the region.

Rice said that the White House had proposed to the US Congress an agreement to ratify the free trade pact with Bogota, which both countries signed in November 2006 and which has already been approved by the Colombian legislature.

At the same press conference, Uribe defended the idea that for Colombia Washington's approval of the free trade deal is urgent "because it's an important step so that there will be more investment in Colombia."

The Colombian leader, with his remarks, clearly intended to send a message to workers in his country that better and fuller integration into the international community is a guarantee of more respect for human rights and better job opportunities.

During her stay in Colombia, Rice visited a flower plantation that employs people pushed from their homes by the armed conflict that has affected Colombia for over 40 years.

The US secretary held talks to demobilize right-wing paramilitaries and leftist guerrillas at an interactive science and technology park in Medellin.

She also discussed with Uribe the case of the three US military contractors who are under the captivity of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas.

Some 7,000 members of the security forces were deployed around Medellin for Rice's visit.

Washington provides some $500 million a year in mainly military aid to Colombia.