Marxist rebels tried to organize an assassination attempt against President Bush during his visit to the port city of Cartagena last week, a top Colombian official said Saturday.
Defense Minister Jorge Alberto Uribe told reporters in Bogota that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a 17,000-member rebel group known as the FARC that has been fighting Colombia’s government for four decades, had plotted to kill Bush.
“Through informants and various sources, we had information indicating that different groups of the FARC had been instructed by the secretariat that they would attempt to assassinate President Bush,” Uribe said in a report carried by Caracol Television.
White House and other U.S. officials refused to discuss the reported plot Saturday, and it was not immediately clear whether members of the FARC had attempted to carry out any instructions to target Bush during his brief stop in Colombia.
Bush traveled to Colombia on Monday to assure leaders there of continued U.S. aid in the battle against drug trafficking. He made the visit after journeying to Chile for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation conference.
Uribe would not elaborate on the alleged plot and would not say whether there had been arrests or confrontations between Colombian or U.S. security forces and the rebels. Uribe offered no evidence of an assassination plot and did not say whether any evidence had been recovered.
Secret Service spokesman Jonathan Cherry in Washington declined to discuss the plot outlined by Uribe.
“The Secret Service does not comment or release information regarding our protective intelligence and protective methods,” Cherry said. “The Secret Service does not discuss any alleged threats to our protectees.”
A White House spokesman also declined to provide details.
“We have full confidence in the fine work of the Secret Service and their work with security officials on the ground when the president travels,” White House spokesman Jim Morrell said. Bush was at his ranch near Crawford, Texas, for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Security was heavy during Bush’s stop in Cartagena. Personnel were stationed atop the airport control tower, and several helicopters were circling when the president arrived shortly before noon. Uribe said Saturday that 15,000 Colombian troops had been deployed because of the threat against Bush.
Low-flying helicopters accompanied Bush’s motorcade on the drive through the city, including two black choppers that flew extremely close to the ground. At one point, the helicopters swooped so low they kicked up a small dust storm, forcing onlookers to cover their heads and eyes. Armed officers, including some in riot gear, were stationed along the route.
Over the last four years, the United States has provided billions of dollars in aid to help the government of Colombia improve internal security and counter the drug trade. Colombia produces most of the cocaine and much of the heroin sold in the United States. Both the FARC and the country’s right-wing paramilitary organizations have ties to drug traffickers, Colombian and U.S. authorities say.
The FARC has made several unsuccessful assassination attempts against Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, including a car bomb attack during his 2002 campaign.
U.S. officials have been impressed by President Uribe, who has launched a full-scale military assault on the FARC.
Bush vowed during his stop that the United States would add funds to Plan Colombia, which has cost $3.3 billion since President Clinton began the program in 2000. The package makes Colombia the largest recipient of U.S. aid outside the Middle East.
Last month, Congress agreed to double the size of the U.S. noncombat military contingent in Colombia, from 400 to 800.
Times staff writer Vieth reported from Crawford and special correspondent Van Dongen from Bogota. Staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.