Colombia fears US strike on drug barons

Perhaps too many Colombians have read Tom Clancy's best-selling novel, Clear and Present Danger, or have seen the popular film version starring Harrison Ford. But the rumour sweeping Colombia this week was that American troops were planning a surgical strike against Colombia's drug lords.

In the novel, the Americans use a laser-guided air-to-ground missile and clandestine ground forces in an attempt to wipe out the cocaine barons. In the rumour, they use laser-guided weapons and troops on the ground, but do not try to kill the drug lords. Instead, they snatch the leaders of the Cali cartel from Colombian jails and whisk them back to the US for trial.

So strong was the rumour, partly fuelled by a new US anti-narcotics operation in the region - dubbed Operation Laser Strike - that security was stepped up at various prisons .

It began last week when the US Attorney-General, Janet Reno, requested the extradition of the three top Cali drug lords currently in jail, ignoring the fact that Colombia's 1991 constitution bars extradition. Colombian President Ernesto Samper's reply? "No way."

This week, the rift developed into a war of words after a memo from the US ambassador in Bogota, Myles Frechette, was leaked to the Washington Post. In it, Mr Frechette suggested keeping Mr Samper "as invisible as possible" and revoking his US visa because of alleged past links with the Cali cartel. The visa of Colombia's ambassador to Mexico, Gustavo de Greiff, a former prosecutor-general, had already been revoked at the weekend as a result of similar suspicions.

Washington pointedly refrained from denying the veracity of the Frechette memo.

Mr Frechette had previously angered his hosts by saying he had been "tailed" by Colombian secret service agents and that embassy phones were bugged.

The Colombian foreign ministry responded angrily to Mr Frechette's memo on Tuesday, faxing a statement to news organisations around the world saying it was "profoundly concerned by the mutual crisis of confidence" with the US, which could "threaten Colombia's democratic stability".

Mr Samper was cleared last month by Congress, the only body which could try him for allegedly accepting millions of dollars of cocaine proceeds for his 1994 election campaign. But Congress is controlled by his ruling Liberal Party and a large number of its members are themselves under investigation for allegedly taking cocaine proceeds. Polls show most Colombians believe Mr Samper should have been impeached.

Colombia's influential Roman Catholic church weighed in this week, questioning his innocence and describing the country as "morally sick".

Pedro Rubiano, Archbishop of Bogota, became a focal point for criticism of Mr Samper earlier this year. He said the president's claim not to have known that millions of dollars were entering his campaign from the Cali cartel was "like saying an elephant walked through your living room and you never noticed."