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Ecuador's president orders expulsion of US diplomat

Envoy accused of suspending annual aid

By Gabriela Molina
Associated Press / February 8, 2009
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QUITO, Ecuador - President Rafael Correa yesterday ordered the expulsion of a top US diplomat he accused of suspending $340,000 in annual aid because Ecuador would not allow the United States to veto appointments to the antismuggling police.

A US Embassy spokeswoman said the official in question, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement attache, left the country in early January when his assignment ended, and that the aid suspension was a US government decision.

Ecuador's leftist president said the official, Armando Astorga, announced the suspension of aid to anticontraband police in a Jan. 8 letter that also demanded they return all donated equipment - including vehicles, furniture, cameras, and phones.

Correa said Astorga also said in the letter addressed to Ecuador's police chief that $160,000 in annual aid to the Human Trafficking Unit "is being reconsidered."

"Mr. Astorga, Keep your dirty money! We don't need it. Here there is sovereignty and dignity," Correa said during his weekly radio address, calling the American "insolent and foolish."

"Mr. Foreign Minister: Give this man 48 hours to get his suitcases and get out of the country," Correa said. He told police chief Jaime Hurtado to return the equipment "to the last eraser."

US Embassy spokeswoman Marta Youth said Astorga left Ecuador last month, and that the decision to suspend the assistance was in response an Ecuadoran government policy, without elaborating. Youth said the US mission would have no comment on Correa's announcement until it can be discussed in coming days.

Fred Lash, a spokesman for the US State Department, said US ambassador Heather Hodges was planning to talk with the Ecuador's foreign minister to find out why the action was taken.

Although Correa has vigorously promoted a socialist agenda in this small Andean nation of 14 million, he did not join his allied leftist presidents in Venezuela and Bolivia when they expelled US ambassadors in September.

US-Ecuador relations have been warmer, with US diplomats praising Correa's cooperation in antinarcotics efforts even after he accused the CIA, without providing evidence, of paying Ecuadoran military officers for information. Correa has taken some tough stances in the past against what he has described as interference from other governments or foreign-owned companies. The US-educated economist and former college professor faces a reelection contest in April.

Correa read from the Jan. 8 letter, which said the United States came to its decision because an "understanding" that members of the anticontraband unit, known as COAT, would be jointly chosen "is not functioning satisfactorily."

He said that implied that "the embassy had to approve the person we name as commander of COAT and who we name as personnel."

Correa said if Washington was going to insist on vetting Ecuadoran personnel, he would insist on the same for US Coast Guard pilots who land their planes on Ecuadoran territory after the lease runs out in November on the US antinarcotics base at Manta on the Pacific coast.

Correa has refused to renegotiate a renewal of the lease on the Manta operation, the only such US base in South America.

President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela last year expelled the US ambassador to Caracas, alleging that the United States was helping to plot a coup against him. In 2005, Chavez blocked the US Drug Enforcement Administration from operating in the country.

President Evo Morales of Bolivia expelled the US envoy last year after accusing him of encouraging opposition protests. He also suspended US antidrug operations.

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