A free trade deal between the US and Colombia could be ratified by June, the Andean country’s foreign minister said on Thursday.

Maria Araujo told the Financial Times that state department officials had assured her they hoped to get congressional consent before President George W. Bush’s negotiating authority expires in July.

“We need this deal. There are 150,000 jobs at stake. If we do not have the framework these jobs will be destroyed,” she said on a visit to Brussels.

This week she met Tom Shannon, the assistant US secretary of state, in Bogotá. “He said they were looking for an agreement [with congressional leaders] by February 19 and then to present it for ratification,” she said.

Ms Araujo said she was confident Colombia could assuage concerns in the Democrat-controlled Congress about labour rights and other guarantees. “Mr Shannon said they would not reopen negotiations,” she said.

Ms Araujo met Peter Mandelson, the EU trade commissioner, on Thursday and agreed to advance negotiations for a similar deal between the EU and the Andean Community, which groups her country with Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

“We expect the agreement to be finished and signed by 2008 at the [EU-Andean Community] summit in Lima,” she said.

Ms Araujo, 36, also held talks with Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU’s external affairs commissioner, to discuss extra financial support for Colombia’s efforts to eradicate coca plantations and rehabilitate more than 40,000 demobbed fighters from the country’s civil war.

Plan Colombia, the US’s controversial military-based strategy, ends this year. Ms Araujo said she wanted a new five-year deal from Washington and Brussels to underpin the pacification of much of the country and to fight the drugs trade, which has been fuelled by a booming appetite in Europe.

President Alvaro Uribe’s tough law and order stance has led to falling murder and kidnapping rates, and foreign investment is driving economic growth.

But last November his methods were questioned when three members of his party in Congress were accused by prosecutors of links to rightwing paramilitaries, who have begun to disarm.

Ms Araujo herself faced calls for her resignation after her brother admitted meeting a rightwing paramilitary leader.

Relations with Ecuador, governed by leftwing Rafael Correa, worsened recently after crop sprayers dumped herbicides over the border. The countries have now brought in the Organisation of American States to mediate.

Ms Araujo also said that Colombia was looking at paying peasants to uproot coca plants by hand across 50,000 hectares - amounting to more than half of plantations – rather than use crop spraying aircraft.

“That would be a solution on the border with Ecuador,” Ms Araujo said. However, the army would have to clear any areas of landmines first, she added.

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