CARTAGENA, Colombia — John McCain and two other U.S. senators who accompanied him lavished praise on Colombian President Alvaro Uribe during a 20-hour trip here that ended Wednesday afternoon before the dramatic news that special forces had rescued 15 hostages held by anti-government guerrillas.
McCain, Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Sen. Lindsey Graham took turns praising Uribe, who's raised a ruckus within Colombia's political establishment during the past week by asking the country's Congress to let him run for president an unprecedented third time.
Leftist critics of Uribe have said he's trying to perpetuate himself in office like a "dictator." Human rights groups have been saying for months that the president hasn't placed enough priority on reducing atrocities against peasants committed by the military.
However, Colombians overall have given Uribe extraordinarily high ratings, with 70 percent saying they view him favorably.
Under Uribe, guerrillas in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia are on the brink of defeat, major cities have become mostly safe for the first time in years and the economy has grown steadily.
McCain praised Uribe in two public appearances, the first with the president by his side, for reducing violence in Colombia and combating the shipment of cocaine to the United States.
"The progress that I've seen since previous visits here has been substantial and positive, recognizing that in human rights and other issues there is still progress that needs to be made," McCain told U.S. and Colombian reporters Wednesday.
"What we have found here is a government led by President Uribe that is at war with drug cartels, terrorists and paramilitary groups to take back the country on behalf of people. And he is succeeding," said Lieberman, an independent Democrat from Connecticut.
Graham, a South Carolina Republican, was even more effusive.
Using information from Colombian officials, he said that prosecutions for murders of union officials in Colombia had skyrocketed from two before Uribe took office in 2002 to 100 since then. Graham noted also that the Colombian government is spending $40 million a year to protect union leaders from right-wing hit squads.
Graham called Uribe a model leader for South America for his efforts against cocaine and on behalf of free trade and added, "America could have no better ally than President Uribe and his government."