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Associated Press, May 7, 2005
by Kim Housego
BOGOTA, Colombia - The United States on Friday said Colombian prosecutors could question two U.S. soldiers accused of selling arms to far-right death squads.
The U.S. concession came amid growing anger in Colombia over Washington's refusal to allow the suspects to be tried in Colombia. But U.S. Ambassador William Wood said the soldiers will be severely punished if found guilty by a U.S. military court.
"Immunity does not mean impunity," he said.
Wood made the comments during a visit to western Tolima state where Warrant Officer Allan N. Tanquary and Sgt. Jesus Hernandez were arrested Tuesday at a luxury estate and accused of plotting to deliver 40,000 rounds of ammunition to a paramilitary militia.
They were turned over to U.S. authorities on Thursday despite widespread calls from lawmakers and senior officials for them to face trial in Colombia. The case has deeply embarrassed Washington, coming less than two months after five U.S. service members were detained for allegedly smuggling cocaine aboard a military aircraft to the United States.
Wood ruled out lifting the diplomatic immunity given to the soldiers under a 1974 treaty between the two nations. However, he said: "If Colombia wants to change our accord, we are always prepared to receive its proposal."
He said Colombian investigators will be allowed to question the suspects at the U.S. embassy before they are flown to the United States within the coming days. The attorney general's office formally sought permission earlier Friday.
Defending the U.S. military presence in Colombia, Wood noted that key crime rates such as homicide and kidnappings had sharply dropped across the country since the United States launched a $3.3 billion, five-year military aid program to combat drug traffickers and leftist rebels. Hundreds of American troops are stationed in the country to train local forces and provide logistical support and intelligence.
Tanquary's father, who said he had not spoken to his son since his arrest, defended the soldier.
"I've got great faith in my son, but I don't know anything about it other than what I've read in the papers," Jim Tanquary said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press from his home in Hendersonville, N.C. "Whatever has transpired down there (in Colombia), it's not something he's done for his own personal gain."
The United States has denied secretly helping the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, which has been blamed for countless atrocities in its two-decade dirty war against Marxist rebels. Washington has labeled the AUC a terrorist organization.
AP writer Margaret Lillard contributed to this report from Raleigh, N.C.