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Foreign Minister of Colombia Quits in Scandal

By Simon Romero
The New York Times
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February 20, 2007

CARACAS, Venezuela, Feb. 19 — The foreign minister of Colombia resigned Monday as the government of President Alvaro Uribe, the Bush administration's closest ally in South America, struggled with a scandal that has disclosed ties between paramilitary cocaine-trafficking squads and some of Mr. Uribe's most prominent political supporters.

The resignation of Foreign Minister Maria Consuelo Araujo came days after Mr. Uribe expressed support for her. But fallout from the arrest last week of five politicians, including her brother, Senator Alvaro Araujo, on charges of working with paramilitary squads in a kidnapping case related to the scandal, made her presence in the cabinet untenable.

Hours after the resignation, the president appointed Fernando Araujo, who recently escaped after six years in rebel captivity, to replace Ms. Araujo. The two are not related.

President Bush, who is scheduled to visit Colombia in March, has stood by Mr. Uribe, in part to counter the enhanced regional influence of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

But the support for Mr. Uribe's government is coming under fresh scrutiny as the United States Congress weighs approval of a trade agreement and a request from the Bush administration for $3.9 billion in military and antinarcotics assistance for Colombia, which is the largest recipient of American aid outside of the Middle East and Afghanistan.

"There is a Democratic Congress that is much more sensitive to human rights issues," said Alejo Vargas, a political scientist at the National University of Colombia in Bogota.

Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, the chairman of the subcommittee that oversees aid to Colombia, said in a statement issued Monday that the resignation and recent arrests were "positive" but left questions unanswered. He said assurances were needed that Colombia's government had "severed links to these terrorist groups."

Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch in Washington, said, "Before any debates on additional aid to Colombia, we need to know how drug-running paramilitaries were allowed to penetrate power at the highest levels."

Jenny Carolina Gonzalez contributed reporting from Bogota, Colombia.

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