February 22, 2006

US, Colombia close to free trade deal: Portman

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States and Colombia are
close to a free trade agreement after nearly two years of talks
and a push last week by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a top
U.S. trade official said on Wednesday.

"We believe we are very close to finalizing an agreement,"
U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman told reporters. "I am
hopeful we can finalize and agreement and move (pacts with)
Peru, Colombia and Ecuador together" through the congressional
approval process, he said.

Portman said the two sides were still discussing how far to
open markets in a number of sensitive farm sectors, as well as
food safety, and animal and plant health rules that both sides
complain often become technical barriers to trade.

"I believe we'll be able to close the gap," Portman said
after a meeting with EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson on
the status of world trade talks. "President Uribe was a superb

negotiator for his country last week. It went very well."

The United States launched trade negotiations in May 2004
with Colombia, Peru and Ecuador in the hopes of sending an
Andean free trade agreement to Congress by early 2005.

Peru finally finished negotiations in November, but
Colombia and Ecuador have been unable to close mainly because
of difficult agricultural issues. Talks between Ecuador and the
United States are expected to resume in March.