U.S. officials say dispute escalated by Argentineans

The State Department said Wednesday U.S. officials are surprised and concerned by an incident last week in which a U.S. military aircraft was searched and items aboard seized, in Buenos Aires. The Air Force plane and crew were to have taken part in a training exercise with Argentine forces.

Officials here say they are puzzled as to why Argentine authorities have chosen to escalate a dispute over the contents of the U.S. Air Force plane that could have easily been resolved at the working level.

The episode began last Thursday when a U.S. C-17 transport aircraft, arriving for a training exercise, was boarded and its cargo seized by Argentine customs agents at the main Buenos Aires airport.

Argentina said items taken included undeclared weapons and drugs including morphine and that it filed a formal protest with Washington over what it said was an attempt to violate Argentine laws by bringing in hidden material in an official shipment.

The State Department reacted with surprise earlier this week, saying that the items were part of gear normally associated with a training exercise.

It said any discrepancies between the items found and those declared for customs purposes by the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires could have been resolved on the scene.

The matter has since been the subject of high-level consultations between the two governments that have not resolved the issue. State Department Spokesman P. J. Crowley said Wednesday U.S. officials are still confused over why Argentina has escalated the dispute.

“It was our view all along that, to the extent there might have been small, technical issues in how certain material was manifested, they could have easily been resolved at a working level. We do not know why Argentina decided to make a federal case out of this, but our interest is in trying to resolve this situation,” he said.

The U.S. aircraft left Argentina for home after the search, and the joint hostage-rescue exercise between military personnel of the two countries was cancelled.

Crowley said the United States has nothing to apologize for and that U.S. officials continue to work as best they can to resolve the matter.

The United States and the populist government of Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner have had generally good relations, though they have differed on some issues including a move by Argentina and other South American states late last year to recognize a Palestinian state.

Officials in Buenos Aires reportedly were displeased that Argentina is not on the itinerary for President Barack Obama’s first Latin American trip in March that will take him to Argentina’s neighbors Chile and Brazil, along with El Salvador.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Argentina on a regional trip last year.

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