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Argentina, US in spat over cargo

BUENOS AIRES, Feb 15 – Argentina accused the United States of being uncooperative with a probe into why undeclared weapons and drugs were sent the South American country on a US military aircraft last week.

The diplomatic spat went public after Buenos Aires authorities seized what they said were undeclared weapons and drugs, but US officials described it as routine equipment for training the Argentine federal police.

Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman on Monday told CNN that the United States has not provided sufficient answers.

"They must give an explanation," Timerman said. "The United States must understand that they can\’t sent war materials without informing the government. And now they refuse to cooperate with the investigation."

But the US State Department on Monday said it was "puzzled and disturbed" by the seizure of what it said was routine equipment for police training.

Officials in Argentina said 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.

In a statement late Sunday, President Cristina Kirchner\’s government said it would lodge a protest with Washington and ask it to cooperate in a probe into the US 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 Sunday\’s statement.

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State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said "we are puzzled and disturbed by the actions of Argentine officials," adding they 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 rumor" that drugs were seized.

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 canceled.

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

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

Argentine officials said Valenzuela had contacted Timerman in hopes of resolving the situation, and was said to have expressed "concern on behalf of the US Defense 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 to Latin America, in March. Obama will travel to El Salvador, Brazil and Chile.

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

He said Obama would not visit Argentina because "it won\’t buy arms or even sign a defense agreement."


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