Calling a Colombian military strike against a guerrilla commander "a cowardly assassination," President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela yesterday closed his country's embassy in Colombia and ordered tanks, planes, and thousands of troops to the 1,300-mile border the two countries share.
President Rafael Correa of Ecuador also recalled his ambassador to Colombia in protest over the assault just inside Ecuador on Saturday that killed 17 guerrillas, including Luis Edgar Devia, a top commander in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Ecuador and Venezuela are allies.
Speaking on his nationally televised show, Chávez lauded Devia and ordered his defense minister to mobilize troops to Venezuela's western border. He also blamed the United States, a staunch ally of President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia, for fueling the conflict in Colombia.
"Move 10 battalions to the Colombian frontier immediately, tank battalions, military aviation," Chávez said. "We are not going to permit the North American empire, which is the ruler, to allow his lapdog, President Uribe and the Colombian oligarchy, to divide or weaken us. We will not permit it."
Another Venezuelan ally, Nicaragua, which is disputing Colombian sovereignty over two islands in the Caribbean, also criticized Colombia. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, a Cold War foe of the United States, called the strike against Devia "an act of total provocation" that reduces the chances of peacefully settling Colombia's conflict.
Although celebrated in Colombia as a major blow against the FARC, the attack has triggered the most serious regional crisis in recent years. Venezuela, Ecuador, and Nicaragua frequently criticize Colombia's military activities in the region and are detached from the United States, which provides billions of dollars in military aid to Colombia.
"This is a political, not a military reaction," said Adrian Bonilla, a professor of international relations at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, a university in Quito, Ecuador. "What is clear is that military, police, intelligence, and security cooperation between Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela are completely fractured at this moment."
The Colombian government said Saturday that Devia was killed in heavy combat between rebels on the Ecuadoran side of the frontier and Colombian troops on the other side.
Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said fighters were then called in to bomb the rebels and that after they were killed, Colombian troops crossed the frontier to recover the bodies of Devia and another rebel commander, Guillermo Torres, better known as the writer of revolutionary ballads.
The Colombian government said Uribe called Correa to brief him about the attack.
Yesterday, Correa called the incursion into Ecuador "the worst aggression Ecuador has suffered on the part of Colombia." In a news conference in Quito, he said that although Uribe had told him the attack took place in battle, an Ecuadoran army patrol that examined the camp had determined otherwise.
"They were bombed and massacred while they slept, using pinpoint technology that found them at night, in the jungle, for sure with the collaboration of foreign powers," he said.
Myles Frechette, a former ambassador to Colombia who works as a consultant in Washington, said the Colombians probably weighed the strike on Devia against the potential fallout from going into Ecuador. But he said repairing the diplomatic damage would be a challenge.
"Uribe has got to go down there, meet with Correa, calm him down, and he's going to have Chávez fuming at the border," Frechette said. Uribe is "in a pickle, in the sense that diplomatically he's got to get himself out of this corner that he's got himself in."