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U.S. official in Colombia for talks on drug trade

Reflecting growing alarm in Washington about leftist rebels strengthened by the cocaine trade, a top U.S. diplomat met with Colombia's president Tuesday to discuss drug trafficking and the country's civil war.

Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering, who arrived late Monday, met with President Andres Pastrana, who vowed when he took office a year ago to battle drug trafficking and negotiate an end to the country's 35-year civil war.

But with peace talks faltering, desperate Colombians requesting U.S. visas in record numbers and illegal drug plantations expanding in the world's No. 1 cocaine-exporting nation, Colombia's future is far from certain.

Clinton administration officials "sense that they're maybe losing control of things in that region," said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. Pickering's trip is the highest-level U.S. diplomatic visit to Colombia in nearly a decade.

Helping to sharpen U.S. attention was the death of five American soldiers last month when a U.S. Army spy plane crashed while on a counter-narcotics mission over rebel territory.

Colombia also has become an issue on Capitol Hill.

The country will receive nearly $300-million in U.S. military assistance this year _ making it the third largest foreign recipient. But Republican lawmakers say the Clinton administration has ignored the growing threat of rebels who finance themselves by protecting the cocaine trade.

Colombia is seeking $500-million in U.S. military aid _ principally for helicopters and high-tech communications gear _ to help it regain the upper hand against the 15,000-strong Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

Critics worry that Washington will be bankrolling a military that has tolerated _ and at times directly supported _ right-wing paramilitary groups who have massacred thousands of civilians.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, writing an op-ed article in the New York Times on Tuesday, urged more progress in severing those deadly ties but said the military had "dramatically improved" its rights record.

"President Pastrana was right to initiate talks," she wrote. "The question is whether he can muster a combination of pressure and incentives that will cause the guerrillas to respond."