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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Ecuador Expels U.S. Diplomats, May Prompt Retaliation

By Viola Gienger and Nathan Gill

Feb. 19 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. is considering retaliation against Ecuador for expelling two American diplomats, the State Department said, calling the South American government’s actions “very troubling.”

The latest expulsion, of embassy first secretary Mark Sullivan, “raises serious concerns about Ecuador’s desire to maintain a productive relationship,” department spokesman Gordon Duguid told reporters in Washington today. He said American officials are “reviewing our options at the moment.”

Tensions have simmered between the U.S. and Ecuador since the Andean nation in July refused to renew a 10-year lease on a U.S. air base in the Ecuadorean port city of Manta used to conduct anti-drug surveillance in the region.

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, a political ally of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, on Feb. 7 ordered the expulsion of Armando Astorga, a U.S. Embassy customs and immigration official stationed in Quito. The action came after the U.S. ended a $340,000 annual police support program to help Ecuador fight smuggling because the two countries couldn’t agree on personnel assignments.

“The United States rejects any suggestion of wrongdoing by embassy staff,” Duguid said.

‘Unacceptable Interference’

Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Fander Falconi yesterday gave Sullivan 48 hours to leave the country because of an “unacceptable interference in Ecuador’s internal affairs,” according to a statement posted on the presidency’s Web site.

“Correa is acting in a very radical way,” Michel Levi, coordinator of the Andean Center of International Studies at the Universidad Andina in Quito, said today in an interview. “This could be a smoke screen to distract the people from stories about his possible links” with Colombian guerrillas.

Correa has denied giving any assistance to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as the group is known.

Falconi said he had informed U.S. Ambassador Heather Hodges verbally on Feb. 13 and in writing on Feb. 17 of the government’s decision. Hodges was scheduled to meet with an Ecuadorean vice minister that day to resolve the dispute, Duguid said.

“Regrettably, the government of Ecuador rejected our efforts to resolve this issue through diplomatic channels and instead held a press conference and announced the expulsion of our diplomat,” he said.

Falconi said in the statement that this was a “strong signal” and that Ecuador would not accept interference from any foreign government.

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