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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Ecuador says expelled U.S. official was CIA operative

By Alonso Soto

QUITO, Feb 21 (Reuters) - The U.S. Embassy official Ecuador kicked out this week on charges of meddling in national affairs was the head of the CIA in the drug-smuggling route country, President Rafael Correa said on Saturday.

But a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman declined to comment on Correa's account that the expelled official ran CIA operations in the Andean country, which is a crucial drug-smuggling route to drug gangs in neighboring Colombia and Peru.

Correa, a leftist ally of U.S. foe Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, expelled Mark Sullivan over charges he tried to handpick an officer heading a police unit partly financed by the United States.

"Lets speak bluntly; he was the head of the CIA in Ecuador," Correa said. "The U.S. Embassy was mad because they are used to handpicking police chiefs in exchange for a few computers."

Sullivan's expulsion came a bit over a week after Correa ordered another U.S. official to leave the country on similar charges, fueling tensions with Washington.

Correa has accused the CIA of having operatives inside his security forces, and aiding neighboring Colombian commandos raid a rebel camp inside Ecuador last year that raised the specter of war in the Andean region.

He said that as part of an unwritten agreement the U.S. embassy approved the naming of officers to head police units they financed.

The popular U.S.-educated economist had generally kept good ties with the United States even as his socialist allies in Bolivia and Venezuela clashed with Washington, including expelling U.S. ambassadors.

Still, Correa went on the offensive this month, declaring he would not bow to pressure from the United States and has now raised complications in establishing his relationship with U.S. President Barack Obama.

Local media has speculated Correa kicked out Sullivan because he was linked to the probe of a former government official arrested for dealing with drug bosses. The police unit that sparked the diplomatic row was investigating the ex-government official. Correa has denied those charges.

Analysts say Correa is trying to get attention away from mounting economic woes caused by plummeting oil revenues and immigrants' remittances that are starting to worry Ecuadoreans who had lived through a series of crippling crises.

The United States is Ecuador's main trading partner and the destination for much of its oil and banana exports.

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