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Bush vows more aid to Colombia

BOGOTÁ -- President Bush gave a vote of confidence to Colombia yesterday, promising to secure more aid and a trade deal for his close ally President Alvaro Uribe as he fights a rebel insurgency and drug traffickers.

Bush is the first US president to travel to Bogotá in 25 years. His seven-hour visit to the high-altitude capital was the midpoint of a five-nation Latin America tour shadowed by his leftist critic, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.

As Bush's armored limousine sped through the city, hundreds of protesters burned US flags, sprayed graffiti, and smashed windows at banks and restaurants during clashes with police who responded with barrage of tear gas and water cannon spray.

His visit occurred as Colombia is working to win approval of the aid and trade deal by Democrats in Congress, some of whom have expressed concern about human rights and a scandal tying some of Uribe's allies to paramilitary death squads.

Bush told reporters he would press Congress to support Uribe's efforts to bring justice those linked to the right-wing paramilitaries who are accused of atrocities, massacres, and drug trafficking.

"It is going to very important for our United States Congress to see that determination, and I believe that given a fair chance President Uribe can make the case," he said.

Worried about Chávez's growing anti-US influence, Bush is on a tour seeking to improve ties with leaders of the right and moderate left in Latin America, where the Iraq war and US trade and immigration policy have made him deeply unpopular.

Bush's closest ally in South America, Colombia has received more than $4 billion in mostly military and antinarcotics funds from Washington since 2000, one of the largest US assistance packages outside the Middle East.