US explores alternatives for Ecuador air base

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CARTAGENA, Colombia, Sep 14 (Reuters) Washington is exploring alternatives with other Latin American countries if Ecuador ends its lease to use Manta air base for counter-narcotics flights, the chairman of the US military's Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, a leftist ally of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, has refused to extend the Pentagon's contract in Manta yesterday, which US officials say has been vital in surveillance operations on Pacific drug-running routes.

''There are nations who are discussing with us that opportunity,'' Marine Gen Peter Pace told reporters in Cartagena when asked whether Washington was looking at options beyond Manta.

Pace is ending his term this month as the Joint Chiefs' chairman.

Pace would not name which countries were in discussions, but US officials speaking on condition of anonymity said earlier this year Peru and Colombia had approached them with offers.

Both countries denied that.

Counter-narcotics operations have become one of the US military's key missions in Latin America. Colombia and Peru receive the largest amount of US military aid in the region.

Colombia, the world's top producer of cocaine, gets the largest US aid package outside of the Middle East and conservative President Alvaro Uribe has become a key White House ally in the region.

Correa has joined Chavez in bashing the Bush administration and promoting a socialist agenda as an alternative to US trade and foreign policies, including the Plan Colombia anti-drug program.

Helped by US funds, Uribe has sent troops to bolster security, push back left-wing rebels fighting Latin America's oldest insurgency and capture several top cocaine traffickers.

But the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebels keep fighting in remote rural areas and the Andean country still exports at least 600 tonnes of cocaine each year, mainly to the United States and Europe.

Reuters SZ VP0728

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