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Pentagon staff heeds Ecuador's wish to leave

| Friday, April 25, 2014, 5:54 p.m.

QUITO, Ecuador — Ecuador has ordered the U.S. Embassy's military group, about 20 Defense Department employees, to leave the country by month's end, in a further indication of strained relations.

The group was ordered to halt operations in Ecuador in a letter dated April 7, the U.S. Embassy confirmed on Friday.

A spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, Jose Ruiz, expressed regret for the shuttering of the embassy's “Security Cooperation Office.”

“Though we respect Ecuador's sovereign right to terminate cooperation programs, we regret that the outcome will severely limit our bilateral security partnership,” he said in an email.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Jeffrey Weinshenker told the AP on Thursday that the military group being expelled has 20 Defense Department employees, not all uniformed.

The expulsions do not affect the U.S. military attache's office. As there is no formal accusation of espionage, reciprocation is not anticipated.

Weinshenker said Washington provided $7 million in security assistance to Ecuador last year. Building relationships with counterparts in partner nations' militaries is a big part of such missions, particularly as U.S. commercial influence ebbs in the region. Ecuador, an OPEC member, has leaned on China in recent years for financial support.

President Rafael Correa publicly complained in January that Washington had too many military officers in Ecuador, claiming there were 50, and said they had been “infiltrated in all sectors.” At the time, he said he planned to order some to leave.

Shortly after taking office in 2007, Correa purged Ecuador's military of officers deemed to have close relations with U.S. counterparts. He ended an agreement with Washington that allowed U.S. drug interdiction flights to be based at the Ecuadorean airfield in Manta.

Correa provided asylum in 2012 to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whose organization published troves of leaked U.S. military documents and diplomatic cables.

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