WASHINGTON — The proposed deployment of Navy warships off Colombia has further strained inter-American relations and complicated the drug war, the Bush Administration acknowledged Tuesday.
At the same time, U.S. relations with Peru suffered a strain after U.S. troops surrounded a Peruvian diplomat's residence in Panama City.
State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said U.S. officials are providing assurances to Latin American leaders that the two incidents do not signal an increased U.S. aggressiveness in the wake of last month's invasion of Panama.
She said that a team of U.S. representatives will arrive in Colombia on Friday to participate in planning sessions for a scheduled Western Hemisphere drug summit on Feb. 15, and it appeared that Colombia, Bolivia and Peru still would participate as planned.
The government of Peru said Tuesday that it has granted diplomatic asylum to five Panamanian army officers and seven family members and has officially protested the posting of U.S. troops near the home of Peru's ambassador to Panama.
U.S. authorities ordered the posting of 10 U.S. soldiers there Monday after receiving information that Lt. Col. Luis Cordoba, a police chief under deposed Panamanian dictator Manual A. Noriega, had taken refuge in the residence. Peruvian officials deny Cordoba is there.
Diplomatic sources said Peru has asked Panama to provide safe conduct for the 12 asylum seekers, who sought refuge in the ambassador's house after Noriega was ousted in the Dec. 20 U.S. invasion.
The five officers include senior military aides to the deposed strongman and Noriega's personal secretary. Panama's Foreign Minister Julio Linares said they will be granted safe passage if no criminal charges are pending.
U.S. officials, meanwhile, said their plans to deploy two naval vessels on drug-fighting duty off Colombia have been placed on hold and will not be pursued without the concurrence of the Bogota government.
Administration officials had said the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy and the nuclear-powered cruiser Virginia left Norfolk, Va., last Thursday headed for international waters off Colombia on an assignment to monitor and intercept drug shipments.
But disclosure of the deployment plans caused a furor in Colombia, where the action was characterized as an American "blockade," and the U.S. government said the two ships instead will be conducting "routine operations" off Florida.
Tutwiler acknowledged that the incident at the Peruvian residence in Panama and the aborted deployment of the two ships had further strained already tense relations with Latin American leaders who objected to the U.S. invasion of Panama.
But she rejected suggestions that the Peruvian and Colombian concerns have become major problems, saying only that they had "complicated" diplomatic consultations.
"All of our ambassadors who are on the ground, all our political officers, all our embassy personnel, (Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America) Bernie Aronson and all our staff here, sure, they're working in this region to assure them," she said.
Tutwiler repeated President Bush's statement that the Panamanian invasion was not a pattern for future U.S. action in the region.
Even so, she refused to rule out the use of warships in the U.S. campaign against international drug trafficking. She said Defense Secretary Dick Cheney has not yet recommended to the President a final plan of action for Colombia.
Tutwiler blamed the Colombian concerns on "misinformation" about U.S. plans to use warships to intercept drug traffickers off the coast of that country, the source of much of the world's cocaine supply.
Planning sessions for the drug summit begin today in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, with meetings of Bolivian, Peruvian and Colombian delegates. U.S. representatives will join the discussions Friday. The four-nation summit will be held next month in Cartagena, Colombia.