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U.S. to shut Ecuador security program on government request

QUITO (Reuters) - The United States will halt a bilateral security initiative run by military officials out of its embassy in Ecuador following a request by the South American nation, an embassy spokesman said on Friday.

Ecuador on April 7 sent a letter to the U.S. embassy asking it to eliminate the Office of Security Cooperation, following comments in January by President Rafael Correa that the embassy had a "scandalous" number of military officers.

The office provided close to $7 million to Ecuador last year for programs related to technical training, maintenance of vehicles and planes, counter-narcotics operations and human trafficking, among others.

"The government has asked that the office halt its activities by the end of April and we respect that sovereign decision," spokesman Jeff Weinshenker told Reuters.

"We regret this result because it will severely limit our bilateral ties on security issues."

Correa, an ardent critic of the United States, had warned that those military officials could have been "infiltrating" different sectors of the country, without providing details.

Ecuador's foreign ministry did not issue any statement regarding the case, and officials were not available to comment.

Ecuador last year also halted cooperation with the United States Agency for International Development that was slated to provide $32 million for development projects, accusing the agency of interfering in the country's affairs.

Last June it renounced trade benefits that the U.S. government had provided to Andean nations in exchange for carrying out anti-drug operations.

Relations between Quito and Washington have been tense in recent years as Correa has accused the United States of meddling in the affairs of governments in the region.

He angered the United States by offering asylum to Wikileaks' Julian Assange, who leaked hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. documents, and by considering the asylum request of former U.S. intelligence analyst Edward Snowden.

(Reporting by Alexandra Valencia, writing by Brian Ellsworth; editing by Andrew Hay)

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