Stop "meddling", US told.

Colombian President álvaro Uribe Vélez, one of Washington's best friends in South America, told the United States to stop ``meddling'' in his country's affairs after the U.S. ambassador urged him to take steps against corruption in upcoming regional elections.

U.S. Ambassador William Wood, in a speech in the capital Friday, said the 2003 elections for mayors and governors saw many unopposed candidates because potential opponents were bribed, scared off and, in some cases, slain.

He said rightist paramilitary groups were often to blame for those abuses and warned the same could happen in elections scheduled for March.

The illegal paramilitaries recently signed a peace deal that makes fighters who disarm eligible for benefits such as reduced prison sentences, pardons, job training and stipends. Wood said fighters who seek to manipulate elections should be stripped of their benefits.

Uribe responded in a sharply worded statement late Friday.

``The Colombian government does not accept the meddling of foreign governments, even if it is the United States,'' he said, adding that it is already clear that paramilitary leaders lose benefits if they break the law.

Uribe said Washington should not try to use Plan Colombia, an anti-drug program funded mostly by a $4 billion aid package from Washington, ``to put pressure on our country.''

The U.S. Embassy said Wood meant no offense by his remarks.

``There was no intention to interfere in any way with Colombian elections, but rather to support the democratic, free, open and impartial process,'' the embassy said in a statement Saturday.

Uribe, a conservative who took office in 2002, is viewed as Washington's main ally in Latin America. He was one of just a few leaders in the region who supported the Iraq war, and earlier this year he visited President Bush at his Texas ranch, where the two talked about their shared battle against terrorists and drug lords.

But Plan Colombia has not produced the results hoped for by either nation. Colombian rebels involved in drug trafficking remain a threat and the price of cocaine is cheaper on American streets than when the program began in 2000.

Some U.S. Congress members argue that because of that, Washington should cut its aid to Colombia, which gets more support from the United States than any country in the hemisphere.

The two nations were unable to agree on a free-trade deal last month after a year and half of negotiations.

[Source: By Dan Molinski, Associated Press, The Mercury News, CA, 18dic05]

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