Venezuela troops head toward Colombia

Tensions rise in the region; Ecuador sends forces to border

Email|Print| Text size + By Toby Muse
Associated Press / March 5, 2008

CUCUTA, Colombia - Venezuela and Ecuador reinforced their borders with Colombia yesterday as the three nations traded increasingly bitter accusations over Colombia's cross-border strike on a leftist guerrilla base in Ecuador.

Rejecting a Colombian apology as insufficient, Ecuador sought international condemnation of the attack during an emergency meeting of the Organization of American States, convened in Washington to help defuse one of South America's most volatile crises in years. Venezuela's justice minister declared that war "has already begun."

President Rafael Correa of Ecuador called his Colombian counterpart, Alvaro Uribe, a "bold-faced liar." Uribe demanded the International Criminal Court try President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela for genocide. President Bush accused Chávez of "provocative maneuvers."

Colombia said documents found at the base showed rebels wanted to make a radioactive dirty bomb. But the documents it shared with reporters didn't support the allegation, indicating instead that the rebels were trying to buy uranium to resell at a profit.

Uribe said Chávez should be prosecuted for allegedly financing the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Uribe cited the documents in a laptop seized in Reyes's jungle camp that he said showed Venezuela recently made a $300 million payment to the rebels.

Both Venezuela and Ecuador dismissed all the allegations as lies. Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said the idea of trying Chávez was "laughable."

At the moment, it is mostly a war of words, and other nations tried yesterday to keep it that way, although many said Colombia was wrong to send troops into Ecuador. The Saturday raid killed 24 guerrillas, including rebel spokesman Raul Reyes, who was engaged in hostage talks with Venezuela, France, and other countries.

Despite troop movements and general saber rattling, Uribe said he would not allow his nation to be drawn into open war. His more than 250,000 US-equipped, trained, and advised soldiers, however, would outnumber the 172,000 active troops Venezuela and Ecuador have between them.

"Colombia has never been a country to go to war with its neighbors," Uribe said. "We are not mobilizing troops, nor advancing toward war."

Venezuela was sending about 9,000 soldiers to the border region as "a preventive measure," retired General Alberto Muller Rojas, a former top Chávez aide, said. Ecuador said it sent 3,200 troops to the border on Monday.

Venezuela's agriculture minister, Elias Jaua, said Venezuela had closed the border - which sees annual trade worth $5 billion - to imports and exports. Leonardo Mendez, a spokesman for a Colombian cargo transport association, said some 300 vehicles, including trucks carrying food, shoes, ceramics, and other products, were stuck.

Extra Venezuelan National Guard troops were stationed at the frontier bridge in steamy Cucuta, where 70 percent of cross-border trade occurs. Soldiers there searched people crossing from Colombia and turned away Colombian tractor-trailers, though they did let at least one truck in because it carried food. Venezuela has been suffering from shortages of milk, meat, and other food, which it imports from Colombia.

Ecuador's $1.8 billion annual trade with Colombia continued yesterday, said Carlos Lopez, Ecuador's undersecretary of immigration.

In Washington, Ecuadoran Foreign Minister Maria Isabel Salvador said Colombia's apology wasn't enough, demanding that the OAS condemn the incursion, appoint a commission to investigate it, and call an urgent meeting of the region's foreign ministers in the next week.

The biggest losers in Reyes's death appeared to be the hostages the rebels want to swap for jailed guerrillas.

France's foreign ministry said Uribe knew France was communicating directly with Reyes in an attempt to secure the release of former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, a dual French national who has become a cause celebre in Europe.

The rebels said yesterday that Reyes died "completing a mission to arrange, through President Chávez, a meeting with [French] President [Nicolas] Sarkozy" aimed at securing Betancourt's release. Correa claimed his government, too, was talking to the FARC about securing freedom for hostages. He alleged Reyes's killing stymied those efforts.

Last week, the FARC released four hostages to Venezuela's justice minister, who said the Colombian raid proved the "intent of the fascist Colombian government is to hamper the handover of hostages."

Correa suggested that the raid was aimed at blocking any release of hostages.

Correa, who cut diplomatic ties with Colombia earlier this week, yesterday slammed Uribe as a liar who "wants war."

"We will try to solve this difference through peaceful, diplomatic means, although we are willing to go to the ultimate consequences," Correa said in Peru, his first stop on a six-nation tour seeking support from other countries that border Colombia.

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