QUITO, Ecuador -- Ecuador's defense minister on Monday defended his country's decision to allow U.S. anti-drug overflights to land in the environmentally sensitive Galapagos Islands, saying the planes will use the landing strips "no more than three days (per month) ... in situations of emergency or refueling."
Critics, however, including former President Rafael Correa, have assailed the plan as an assault on Ecuador's sovereignty, as well as on the islands' unique and fragile environment.
"No minister, the Galapagos is not an aircraft carrier for use by gringos," Correa tweeted last week, addressing Defense Minister Oswaldo Jarrin.
"It is an Ecuadorean province that is the patrimony of humanity. That your vassal's soul reaches this extreme describes very well the government you represent," Correa added.
Critics described the agreement as allowing the United States to open a military base on the Galapagos, best known as the inspiration for Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. The islands are home to plant and animal species found nowhere else.
Jarrin, however, speaking at a university conference in Quito, the capital, denied that the presence of the U.S. aircraft, including a Boeing Airborne Early Warning and Control System and Lockheed P-3 Orion surveillance plane, will convert the San Cristobal island airport into a U.S. air base.
Changes to the airport will include a lengthening of a runway, however.
Jarrin said attempts to characterize it as a U.S. base were acts of "bad faith" by political opponents of President Lenin Moreno, who is allowing the U.S. to resume flights that previously operated out of Manta, on the coast of the Ecuadorian mainland. Correa prohibited the flights in 2009, saying they were an affront to Ecuador's sovereignty.
Several Latin American nations, including Colombia, Peru and Panama, permit basing of U.S. anti-drug overflights operated by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Ecuador signed the new agreement with the U.S. last year, but it was detailed only at a little-noticed news conference in April.