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Gates Says US Aid Not Linked to Need for New Latin America Base

07 October 2007

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he did not discuss possible locations for a new U.S. base in Latin America on any of the five stops he made in the region in recent days. The secretary made the remark during his final stop in Paramaribo, Suriname on Saturday. VOA's Al Pessin reports.

Secretary Gates made his most definitive statement yet regarding the U.S. search for a place to put a small air base for counter-narcotics flights. Ecuador says it will not renew the lease on a facility it hosts when the agreement expires in 2009. "We have no interest in a base in Suriname. I know that there's been a good deal of speculation about the purpose of my trip to various countries in Latin America, and I can tell you that the subject of an American base did not come up at a single one of my stops," he said.

U.S. officials say they hope the Ecuadorian government will change its position, and in the meantime they are exploring options for other locations. But the subject is so sensitive in Latin American countries, they refuse to discuss any specifics.

On Saturday, after meeting with Suriname's president, defense minister and other officials,Secretary Gates said the United States wants to deepen its cooperation with regional countries in the fight against drug trafficking, terrorism and international crime, but that does not necessarily mean more U.S. bases. "Along the way, these partnerships may take different forms and different shapes, but at this point, bases was not the subject of it. And the further development of our relationships is not dependent on people providing us with those kinds of facilities," he said.

Secretary Gates said the United States also wants to provide more training for regional armies, to increase their capabilities and make them more professional. Some countries also want aid to buy more U.S. military equipment, but Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell says opportunities for that are hindered by the United States' own demand for weapons, vehicles and other equipment due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On Saturday, Secretary Gates also visited the U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort, which was anchored off the Suriname coast on the final day of a four-month, 12-nation mission in Central and South America. The ship's civilian and military crew provided medical treatment to nearly 100,000 people during the trip, including 1,100 who needed surgery.

The crew also trained health care workers and fixed medical equipment. Secretary Gates says humanitarian missions like that are an important part of the U.S. military strategy in the region. "This is a part of the evolving mission of the Southern Command in the United States, in terms of not just providing medical care and training as the Comfort has done but also training and professionalizing of military officers and militaries in other countries, building bilateral cooperation and dealing with these transnational threats," he said.

In answer to a reporter's question, Secretary Gates said the Comfort's stop in Surname was not meant to counter Cuban and Venezuelan medical missions here. And his press secretary said U.S. humanitarian efforts in Latin America predate Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez by decades, and will continue long after he leaves the political scene.

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