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South America base a touchy topic

Peru, Colombia potential drug-surveillance sites

LIMA, Peru — The United States is moving cautiously to find a new air base for anti-drug surveillance in South America in the face of vocal opposition to the idea in Peru and Colombia.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates met Friday with Peruvian President Alan Garcia as well as the country's Defense Minister Allan Wagner, who told reporters a day before Gates arrived here that the delicate topic would not come up in their meetings.

Both Peru and Colombia have offered to talk to the Pentagon about a new base location, a senior U.S. defense official said earlier this week, but he also noted that it wasn't on Gates' agenda Friday.

After Gates and Garcia emerged from their meeting, the U.S. defense chief praised Peru for strengthening its government, improving economic conditions and for efforts to combat drug-trafficking. Gates said the two also discussed shared security concerns, but he was not more specific.

Gates' spokesman, Geoff Morrell, confirmed the air base issue didn't come up in Friday's meetings.

Previously, Gates has said the Pentagon is still looking at alternatives for a new air base site, and no proposals have been made to anyone yet.

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa said in August that the U.S. should move its anti-drug flights to Colombia after the lease runs out on the Manta air base in his country in 2009. Correa, who took office in January, has said repeatedly that he won't extend the agreement that lets the U.S. military use the base for surveillance flights.

After leaving Colombia earlier this week, Gates told reporters that the issue did not come up in his discussions with defense and government officials there.

Gates is on a five-day, five-country swing through the region and has met with leaders in El Salvador, Colombia, Chile and Peru. He is also planning a visit to Suriname today.

The senior defense official, who is traveling with Gates and spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, had initially said that Colombia and Peru had agreed to discuss the issue. But he stressed that any talks would be very preliminary and there are no ongoing negotiations.

He added that any decisions will depend on the governing bodies in each country. Officials have also been reluctant to rule out the possibility of continuing to use the Manta base, despite Correa's blunt, public rejections.

Gates was presented with military honors by the Peruvians. He was awarded the Military Order of Ayacucho, the highest defense medal given to civilians.

The medal is the named after the Great battle of Ayacucho in 1824, a key fight in the final campaign against Spanish rule in South America. It marked the defeat of the last viable Royalist army in South America.