Colombia's Ambassador to U.S. Resigns

The Associated Press
Wednesday, July 12, 2006; 10:43 PM

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Colombia's ambassador to the United States has resigned in anger over the president's selection of a disgraced former leader as ambassador to France _ prompting a high-level feud on Wednesday.

Ambassador Andres Pastrana said President Alvaro Uribe's support for Ernesto Samper, whose U.S. visa was revoked because of alleged ties to drug traffickers, "left him without a choice but to resign." As ambassador, he was the main spokesman in Washington for Colombia's cooperation in the war on drugs.

"This changes Colombia's policy and it changes it radically," said Pastrana, after more than six hours of closed-door meetings with officials in Bogota on Tuesday. Pastrana himself was president of Colombia between 1998-2002.

In a radio interview Wednesday, Samper accused Pastrana of attempting to blackmail the president, saying his former rival has "turned a local problem into an international crisis."

But opponents of Uribe said the entire government was to blame.

"This episode is a good illustration of how politics is conducted in Colombia: with no dignity or coherence," said Carlos Gaviria, of the leftist Alternative Democratic Pole party who finished a distant second to Uribe in May elections.

Pastrana's resignation, which caught Uribe and most Colombians by surprise, was deplored by the president. In a swift, impromptu shuffling of the nation's top diplomats, Uribe named Foreign Minister Carolina Barco as the new ambassador to Washington.

The government's announcement Monday that it was nominating Samper for the Paris post sparked outrage among many Colombians and allies in Washington in the war on drugs. In his statement, Uribe said Samper had declined to avoid harming national interests.

Uribe's former Culture Minister Maria Consuelo Araujo, a key aide in Uribe's recent re-election campaign, would be the new foreign minister. Uribe also designated Maria Angela Holguin as ambassador to France, but the current ambassador to the United Nations declined the offer Wednesday, citing personal issues that required her to return to Colombia.

Pastrana had flown back to Colombia on Monday after the foreign minister announced Samper's selection.

The two statesmen are longtime political rivals _ Samper narrowly defeated Pastrana for the presidency in 1994. Samper served as president until 1998.

Samper was nearly impeached over allegations his campaign accepted $5 million in contributions from the Cali cocaine cartel. He was cleared by Colombia's legislature of wrongdoing, but his visa to the U.S. was stripped and his top aides were sent to jail.

On Tuesday, Myles Frechette, a former U.S. ambassador to Colombia under Samper's presidency, called Uribe's appointment of Samper an "incredibly maladroit" move that could prompt the U.S. Congress to curtail its support for the country's counter-narcotics efforts.

Colombia is one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid, having received more than $4 billion since 2000.

© 2006 The Associated Press