Pubdate: Wed, 02 Dec 1998
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 1998 The New York Times Company
Author: Steven Lee Myers


CARTAGENA, Colombia -- The United States has begun talks with several
countries to find new bases of operation in Central and South America
for the American military forces that must soon leave Panama, American
officials said today.

The discussions, while preliminary, have taken on new urgency because
the United States has to close its principal airfield in Panama by May
1 as part of its agreement to relinquish control of the Panama Canal
entirely by the end of 1999.

The airfield, Howard Air Force Base, supports the bulk of the aircraft
and other forces involved in American-led efforts to stop the flow of
cocaine and other drugs from South America to the United States.
Without new bases by that deadline, American commanders fear there
could be an interruption in the interdiction flights.

The Pentagon has held talks with Honduras, Peru and Ecuador about the
possibility of allowing small numbers of surveillance aircraft, like
AWAC's, to use existing airfields in those countries, senior defense
officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of
diplomatic sensitivities inherent in America's military presence in
the region.

Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen said he had discussed the issue
with a number of countries gathered here for a three-day conference of
defense ministers from the Americas, but had not made a decision or
reached an agreement on the bases. "What we are looking for are
forward operating locations that could be of assistance in surveying
the territory to prevent the transfer of narcotics," Mr. Cohen said at
a news conference today.

Gen. Charles E. Wilhelm, the commander of all American forces in
Central and South America, declined today to identify prospective
sites, but said in an interview, "We need to be close to the regions
where we need to operate."

Ever since the Panama Canal opened in 1917, the United States has kept
a military presence in Panama, but that force has dwindled in
accordance with the treaties President Carter negotiated in 1977 to
return control of the canal to the Panamanians. The Pentagon had hoped
to reach agreement with Panama to maintain a presence and considered a
proposal by the Panamanians to create a multinational counternarcotics
center at Howard. But those negotiations faltered in September over
the Americans' insistence that the United States still be able mount
other military operations from the base, not just those involving drugs.

The United States now has about 4,000 troops in Panama, nearly half of
them at Howard. Although the airfield has only a dozen planes
permanently based there, scores of fighters, tankers and surveillance
jets pass through, flying some 15,000 missions a year.

Some of the units long based in Panama have already found other homes,
including the headquarters of General Wilhelm's command, which moved
to Miami, and the Southern Command's army and special forces units,
which are planning to move to bases on Puerto Rico.

General Wilhelm said the United States was likely to need two or three
forward bases soon to come close to replicating the range of flights
now launched from Panama.

Honduras would be an obvious choice. The United States has had a base
at Soto Cano since 1983, now with about 1,500 troops. But the
officials said a site there would limit coverage to Central America. A
site in Peru or Ecuador would allow American pilots to concentrate
surveillance on the Andean region, where much of the cocaine bound for
the United States is produced, the officials said.

The officials said the United States did not need large airfields,

with squadrons permanently assigned to them, but rather support bases,
with few troops, that would allow aircraft from the United States to
operate during short missions to the region.

"We're not interested in building air bases," General Wilhelm said.
"We're interested in air bases where we can get jet aid, where we can
arrange accommodations for air crews. Perhaps we can lease a little
hanger space."

Although he described the region as critical to American security,
General Wilhelm said diplomatic realities would not permit a large,
permanent American presence.

"For the most part, Latin Americans don't want larger numbers of North
Americans in their countries," he said. "They don't want armored
brigades. They don't want fighter wings on their airfields, around
their towns and villages."

But Peter Romero, the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American
Affairs, who was at the conference, said the Administration still
hoped to establish a larger base, anchored by a multinational center
for the drug fight.

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Checked-by: Rich O'Grady