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Colombia backs off claim Bush was targeted

BOGOTA -- Colombia's government backpedaled yesterday on a sensational claim made by the defense minister that Marxist rebels wanted to assassinate President Bush during a recent state visit.

Defense Minister Jorge Uribe told reporters Friday that informants said the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, instructed followers to "assassinate President Bush" during his visit in the seaside city of Cartagena Nov. 22, where he met with President Alvaro Uribe.

The defense minister, who is no relation to the president, did not say where the information came from, and there was no indication Bush's life was ever in danger. He was protected by 15,000 Colombian troops and police, US troops, and Secret Service agents during his 3-hour visit to Colombia.

Interior and Justice Minister Sabas Pretelt played down the comments yesterday, saying he had no information about any assassination plot against Bush.

"There is nothing specific," Pretelt said. "What these terrorist organizations normally try to do is disturb the visits of any head of state . . . like President Bush. But we took all measures, and there was no disturbance."

The defense minister told reporters yesterday that he did not want to elaborate on his earlier comments, but his spokeswoman indicated he had either misspoken or been misunderstood.

"The FARC wanted to make a noise because of Bush's visit, that's to say to place a bomb in Cartagena or something like that," spokeswoman Daisy Canon said. "But a structured plan, with details to attack Bush -- that we don't know about."

The FARC has not commented on Uribe's statement.

Carlos Lozano, managing editor of Colombia's Communist Party newspaper, who has had contact with rebel leaders in the past, dismissed the claim as outlandish.

"This is just another clownish statement from the minister," Lozano said. "He launches these rumors which lack seriousness. I think it is his way of trying to get the United States more involved in the war here."

Washington has provided $3 billion in mostly military aid to help Colombia battle the rebels.

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