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Bolivian president suspends US anti-drug efforts

Bolivian President Evo Morales suspended U.S. anti-drug operations on Saturday as Washington's relations with his leftist government spiraled downward.

world Updated: Nov 02, 2008 08:21 IST

Bolivian President Evo Morales suspended US anti-drug operations on Saturday as Washington's relations with his leftist government spiraled downward.

Morales accused the US Drug Enforcement Administration of espionage and funding "criminal groups" trying to undermine his government.

He announced the indefinite suspension while declaring that his government has eradicated more than 12,300 acres (5,000 hectares) of illegally planted coca so far this year _ the minimum required under a 1988 Bolivian law passed under US pressure.

Coca is the raw material for cocaine, but Bolivians use the small green leaf in its less-potent natural form as a traditional tea or for chewing.

Bolivia-US relations have deteriorated in recent months as Morales' government limited DEA activities and later expelled the US ambassador over charges of spying and involvement in anti-government protests in the eastern lowlands. "There were DEA agents who worked to conduct political espionage and to fund criminal groups so they could launch attacks on the lives of authorities, if not the president," Morales said. The US in turn added Bolivia to its anti-narcotics blacklist _ causing a cut in trade preferences that Bolivian business leaders estimate could cost South America's poorest country as many as 20,000 jobs.

US anti-drug officials and diplomats have denied any political involvement.

"We reject the accusation that DEA or any other part of the U.S. government supported the opposition or conspired against the Bolivian government," U.S. State Department spokesman Karl Duckworth said in Washington. "These accusations are false and absurd, and we deny them."

Duckworth added that the DEA "has a 35-year track record of working effectively and professionally with our Bolivian partners." "Should U.S. cooperation be ended, more narcotics will be produced and shipped to Bolivia. The corrupting effects, violence and tragedy which will result will mainly harm Bolivia as well as ... neighboring Latin American countries, Europe and West Africa." Morales' decision creates "an unfortunate situation," DEA spokesman Garrison Courtney said in Washington, but added, "We will find other ways to make sure we keep abreast of the drug-trafficking situation through there."

Two DEA agents were pulled from the Chapare coca-growing region in September after Bolivian officials reported threats against them from coca growers in the area, a bastion of support for the president, who came to prominence as leader of a coca-growers union battling U.S. eradication campaigns.

The United Nations estimates that Bolivia's coca crop increased by 5 percent in 2007 _ far below the 27 percent jump recorded in Colombia, a close U.S. ally. Cocaine seizures by Bolivian police working closely with DEA agents also had increased dramatically during the Morales administration.

Last month Morales denied a DEA request to fly an anti-drug plane over Bolivia, saying Bolivia doesn't need U.S. help to control its coca crop.

Morales is a close ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who in 2005 also suspended his country's cooperation with the DEA after accusing its agents of espionage.