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Peru downplays Marine exercise

©Associated Press
September 15, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Some 600 Marines will exercise for the first time in the Amazon Basin of Peru, but Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo said Saturday the maneuvers are not a precursor to building a U.S. military base in the South American country.

The Peruvian Congress has authorized the Marine operation at the Peruvian navy's Nanay base on the banks of the Amazon near Iquitos, 650 miles northeast of Lima. Previous significant U.S.-Peruvian operations have been in the Pacific and not inland.

Peruvian press reports maintain the Marines aboard the dock landing ship USS Portland would be testing areas in Peru for a military base to help Colombia fight drug traffickers and the leftist guerrilla group FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

"I want to categorically deny that the exercise of some U.S. military forces in the Peruvian Amazon are related to a building of any U.S. military base in Peru," Toledo told Associated Press Television in a Friday night interview.

Iquitos is the easternmost Peruvian city in the Amazon region, some 120 miles from the southern border of Colombia. The region is a haven for FARC guerrillas and drug traffickers.

Toledo said the Marines will start a routine nine-day operation today with the Peruvian navy, both along the Pacific coast and in the Amazon Basin. The USS Portland is to enter the Amazon in Brazil.

The operation is part of the UNITAS program, which every other year deploys U.S. forces for joint operations in South America. On alternate years, the deployment is in South Africa.

UNITAS deployments, four-month long exercises, began in 1959 as a Navy operation. In 1981 it was expanded to include amphibious operations with Marines. Participating countries include Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Paraguay, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil.

The United States has already flown drug surveillance flights in the Amazon with the Peruvian military.

They were suspended in April 2001 after a Peruvian military jet shot down a plane carrying American missionaries, killing 35-year-old Veronica Bowers and her infant daughter, Charity. A CIA-operated surveillance plane had mistakenly identified the aircraft as a possible drug-smuggling flight.

"We are working together (with the United States) against drug trafficking and terrorism," Toledo told APTV. "But there's not a possibility, nor a dialogue, to create an American military base in Peru."

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