Argentina demands answer on seized US cargo

THE US “must give an explanation” for sending undeclared weapons and drugs on a military flight to Argentina last week, Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman says.

“They must give an explanation,” Mr Timerman told CNN. “The United States must understand that they can’t send war materials without informing the government. And now they refuse to cooperate with the investigation.”

The diplomatic spat between the countries started after Argentinian authorities seized what they said were undeclared weapons and drugs on a US military aircraft.

Buenos Aires said it planned to lodge a formal protest with Washington, while the US State Department said it was “puzzled and disturbed” by the seizure of what it said was routine equipment for training the Argentine federal police.

The US Air Force C-17 transport plane was searched and its cargo seized by customs officials on Thursday at Ezeiza International Airport after arriving with experts and material for a hostage rescue training exercise, Argentine officials said.

In a statement made on Sunday, President Cristina Kirchner’s government said it would lodge a protest with Washington and ask it to cooperate in a probe into the air force’s attempt “to violate Argentine laws by bringing in hidden material in an official shipment.”

Argentina has said it seized “sensitive material” that had not been declared in a manifest submitted by the US embassy.

“Among the material seized, which the State Department makes no reference to, are from weapons to different drugs, including various doses of morphine,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said the authorities conducted what he called “an unusual and unannounced search of the aircraft’s cargo.”

But he said the material seized was routine for exercises in which US military experts train the Argentine federal police in “advanced hostage rescue and crisis management techniques.”

He said the “seized items include batteries, medicine, a rifle and communications equipment,” adding he had no information to “corroborate that rumour” that drugs were seized.

Mr Crowley said he had heard the serial number of one item was not documented, but added that the whole matter could “easily have been resolved on the ground by customs officials” rather than “escalated.”

“We continue to call on the Argentine government to return our equipment,” he said, adding the United States regretted the training exercise was cancelled.

He said Assistant US Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela at the weekend called Mr Timerman and other officials to register “our great concern” about the incident.

The Argentine foreign ministry statement said Mr Valenzuela “refused to explain why they tried to pass this material.”

Argentine officials said Mr Valenzuela had contacted Mr Timerman hopes of resolving the situation, and was said to have expressed “concern on behalf of the US Defence Department over the seizure of items related to the security of the United States.”

The incident comes amid a chill in US-Argentine bilateral relations, and follows US President Barack Obama’s decision to exclude Argentina from his first scheduled trip in March to Latin America. Mr Obama will travel to El Salvador, Brazil and Chile.

Mr Timerman reacted to this decision by saying that the United States has “more interests than friends.”

He said Mr Obama would not visit Argentina because “it won’t buy arms or even sign a defence agreement.”

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