Pentagon chief makes first visit to Latin America

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SAN SALVADOR, Oct 2 (Reuters) US Defense Secretary Robert Gates today began a five-nation tour of Latin America, visiting governments Washington sees as friendly in a region increasingly leaning left.

The Pentagon chief landed first in El Salvador, the only Latin American country with troops in Iraq, and met with President Antonio Elias Saca, the minister of defense and military chiefs.

Saca, after the meeting, said El Salvador's 280 troops would remain in Iraq but said he wanted to reduce that level as the security situation improved.

''It is very important that a gradual withdrawal of troops occurs as the situation in Iraq improves,'' Saca told reporters.

''We have supported the United States and now the support will not change.'' Gates, on his first trip to the region as defense secretary, aimed to highlight El Salvador's assistance with US military activities in the West Asia and in hosting US counter-narcotics operations at the Comalapa air base.

Comalapa is the newest of four bases the US military uses to run missions targeting the drug trade, and Gates' visit comes after the host of another site, Ecuador, refused to renew the Pentagon's lease on the Manta air base.

''We want to highlight the fact that El Salvador is a close ally,'' said a senior defense official traveling with Gates. ''It certainly has helped the United States in Iraq and the Middle East. It's obviously a country that punches way above its weight, considering its size.'' ''We'd like to highlight the fact that El Salvador has hosted a cooperative security location for us and not just for us but for the community of countries in the Americas that are affected by drug trafficking,'' the official said.

Basing rights is among the key topics Gates is expected to discuss with leaders in Latin America this week.

Ecuador's president has refused to renew the Pentagon's lease on the Manta air base, leading US officials to look for another location.

US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said Colombia and Peru have offered the United States alternate locations, but both countries have denied that.

Gates next visits Colombia followed by Chile and Peru.

Reuters SBA VP0100

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