American Force Begins Leaving Bolivia
SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia (AP) _ The United States on Friday began withdrawing soldiers and equipment that for the past three months had provided support for a major anti-drug operation by Bolivian police.
Ten American soldiers and three helicopters left Bolivia for Panama. In their place, a C5A cargo plane delivered six other helicopters and 25 Air Force pilots and technicians who will train the Bolivian military to take over.
President Victor Paz Estenssoro said recently the 174 U.S. soldiers who have been in Bolivia since July will leave by Nov. 15, to be replaced in the battle against the cocaine industry by Bolivians.
Bolivia, an impoverished country of 6.4 million people, is estimated to produce half of the cocaine that reaches U.S. and world markets.
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials in Bolivia say the elite Leopards anti-narcotics police ferried by U.S. Black Hawk helicopters have destroyed 18 major cocaine laboratories in the Beni tropical grasslands near the northern city of Trinidad.
″Hopefully the Bolivian pilots we will train can take over the mission and continue to enforce and control drug trafficking and production,″ said Boyce Brigham, one of the helicopter pilots who returned to Panama on Friday.
At least 80 of the American soldiers were camped Friday near the Viru Viru airport in Santa Cruz, about 250 miles south of Trinidad, awaiting their return to their bases. The rest of the Americans were expected to arrive by Monday.
″Things have gone very well and the operation is a success up to this point,″ said U.S. Air Force Lt. Jeffrey Hovey.
The C5A delivered six Huey helicopters, the pilots and technicians to Santa Cruz and took three Black Hawk choppers and the 10 Americans back to Panama later in the day.
Three other Black Hawk helicopters will continue to assist the Leopards until all the Americans leave, the U.S. Air Force said.
Bolivian police say the drug raids will not be interrupted by the departure of the Americans.
The six Hueys from the 193rd Regiment in Panama will be used for training purposes and replaced Nov. 1 by newer models, the U.S. Army press office at Viru Viru said.
The Hueys, which were widely used during the Vietnam War, are easier to maintain and fly than the Black Hawks, air force pilots say.