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U.S. MAY PLACE CARRIER OFF COLOMBIAN COAST

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President Bush, seeking to instill more military muscle in the drug war, is considering putting an aircraft carrier off the coast of Colombia to help intercept cocaine shipments to the United States, administration officials said.

White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said Thursday that although details of the operation have not been completed, "Final plans are now being made."An administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, "We want to establish 24-hour monitoring" of air and sea traffic from cocaine-laden South America, particularly Colombia.

Although neither Fitzwater nor the official said the operation has final administration approval, both indicated it was anticipated.

Sources said the new interdiction effort is expected to be included in the Bush administration's updated anti-drug strategy to be presented to Congress next month.

An administration official said the president, acting on recommendations from the Pentagon, intends to station an aircraft carrier off Colombia.

The official said the vessel would be equipped with surveillance and intercept planes.

"We're not going to be shooting anyone down, but we want to be able to track them," the administration official said.

Once on the ground, alerted U.S. or foreign authorities could make arrests and seizures, he said.

The U.S. Coast Guard and Customs Service now operate an admittedly inadequate drug net over the Caribbean that includes planes and radar equipment.

By having an aircraft carrier off Colombia, authorities hope to extend and tighten the net that officials say now snare, at best, one in 10 drug shipments.

Fitzwater, accompanying Bush on a five-day vacation to Texas, said Defense Secretary Dick Cheney developed plans to increase the military's role in the drug war at the direction of Bush and after consultations with military brass.

Fitzwater said the preliminary findings were presented to the president last week and are now being fleshed out.

He noted that the president has long wanted to give the military a greater role in the drug war, and that the new operation would be conducted in consultation with other Latin American nations.

The operation is certain to be a topic at a regional drug summit Feb. 15 in Colombia.