US commander warns of Latin America terrorist threat

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SAO PAULO, Oct 18 (Reuters) Islamic terrorist groups have networks in Latin America and the Caribbean and could use the region as a base to launch attacks on the United States, the senior US military commander for the region says.

''For sure, members, facilitators, and sympathizers of Islamic terrorist organizations are present in our hemisphere,'' Adm. Jim Stavridis, head of the US Southern Command, wrote in an article in the fall edition of Americas Quarterly journal, obtained by Reuters before publication.

''We consider Latin America and the Caribbean as being highly likely bases for future terrorist threats to the US and others.'' US officials have warned of a militant presence in Latin America since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

They have provided little concrete evidence and Brazil, which has a large Arab population, and some other regional governments have played down the threat.

But Stavridis was reiterating US concerns after police said in June they had foiled a plot to sabotage New York's John F Kennedy airport by suspects linked to the Caribbean.

The Lebanon-based Hezbollah was the most prominent group in Latin America, Stavridis said. Most of its activity appeared to be fund-raising but ''there are indications of an operational presence and the potential for attacks.'' A multinational task force has been set up in the so-called tri-border where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay meet, an area reputed to be a hotbed of money-laundering and smuggling.

The head of border controls for Brazil's Federal Police disagreed with the admiral's contention.

''If I were a terrorist I'd launch an attack from England.

Latinos face 10 times the controls that Europeans do at US borders,'' Mauro Sposito said in an interview.

Brazilian authorities had no indication of terrorist cells in the tri-border region, he said, although they were aware of financial contributions to groups such as Hezbollah, which Brazil does not classify as a terrorist organization.

''They legally send money through Paraguay to the Hezbollah - it's a political party,'' Sposito said.

A senior justice ministry official, Pedro Abramovay, said the United States had not informed Brazil of any concrete case of suspected terrorist cells.

CRIME HITS REGION'S GROWTH Crime, drugs and gangs were the most immediate security threats, Stavridis said. Colombia was winning its long war against drug traffickers but gangs were causing big problems in Brazilian cities, Haiti, Jamaica and Central America. Crime was also hurting economic growth prospects, he said.

The biggest gangs crossed borders and reached deep into the United States, said Stavridis, a navy officer who took the helm of the Miami-based Southern Command in October 2006.

Stavridis said security threats were partly the result of poverty, inequality and corruption -- problems that must be addressed for a lasting solution.

He noted that analysts and polls said anti-US sentiment was growing and that the Bush administration ignored Latin America. This has allowed leaders such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to whip up opposition to the United States.

''Anti-US leaders are creating tensions and suspicions that exacerbate what is already a difficult mission,'' he said.

REUTERS SKB RN1958

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