South America crisis focus at summit

March 7, 2008 11:35:39 AM PST
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe said Friday that Colombian rebels helped Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa get elected, citing as evidence a rebel's letter seized during a cross-border raid that has sparked an international crisis. Correa walked out of the 20-nation Rio Group summit after the finger-wagging accusation, then returned and demanded the opportunity denounce the accusation as "infamy."

Uribe said his forces seized a letter during their raid Saturday on a rebel camp just across the border with Ecuador in which Raul Reyes - a rebel leader killed in the raid - told the guerrillas' top commander about "aid delivered to Rafael Correa, as instructed."

Uribe also said that he didn't give Correa advance warning of the attack on Ecuadorean soil because "we haven't had the cooperation of the government of President Correa in the fight against terrorism."

That prompted an angry exchange between the two, as other presidents sought to keep the dialogue civil.

Correa, who has broken off relations with Colombia and sent troops to the border over the incident, denounced Uribe as a liar, portrayed Ecuador as a victim of Colombia's conflict, and proposed an international peacekeeping force to guard their border.

"I reject this infamy that the government of Rafael Correa has collaborated with the FARC," Correa bellowed into the microphone. His comments drew loud applause from other leaders, who met Uribe's speech with silence.

The summit was to have focused on energy and other issues, but those were overshadowed by the diplomatic crisis in the Andes after the deadly Colombian cross-border raid into Ecuador on Saturday that killed a senior Colombian rebel and 24 others.

It began quietly, with the host, Dominican President Leonel Fernandez, appealing for unity. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said it was time to cool tensions and predicted the summit "is going to be positive."

"People should go cool off a bit, chill out their nerves," Chavez said before the summit started. "I think the meeting today is going to be positive, because it is going to help the debate. We have to debate, talk, and this is the first step toward finding the road."

But the accusations began quickly, with Correa criticizing "the aggression of Colombia" and Uribe saying that Correa is a dishonest partner in the fight against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Other leaders called for calm. After talk of imperialism, communism and terrorism, Mexico's Felipe CalderDon advised leaving aside the adjectives in hopes of reaching a solution. Guatemala's Alvaro Colom proposed that a reconciliation commission visit both countries. And Argentina's Cristina Fernandez called for a return to "legality," rejecting unilateral actions by any country.

Latin American foreign ministers on Thursday drafted a statement saying national sovereignty must be respected. The draft, to be submitted to the presidents on Friday, mirrors one earlier in the week from the Organization of American States, said Chilean Foreign Minister Alejandro Foxley.

Chavez has ordered thousands of troops and tanks to Venezuela's border with Colombia and threatened to slash trade and nationalize Colombian-owned businesses. Correa has also sent troops to the border, although Uribe has said he won't do the same.

The summit marked the first face-to-face encounters between Chavez, Correa and Uribe since the international crisis began.

Uribe is hugely popular among Colombians for cracking down on the FARC, which finances itself through kidnapping and drug trafficking.

Nicaragua, a leftist ally of Venezuela and Ecuador, broke relations with Colombia on Thursday, and the denunciation of Colombia by its president, Daniel Ortega, also brought applause.

The attack also cut off all contacts between the rebels and France, where the freedom of French-Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt has become a national cause, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Friday.

Uribe has refused to rule out future military incursions into Ecuador or Venezuela, saying he first needs assurances from Correa and Chavez that they are not harboring rebels.

One of the rare regional voices offering support for Colombia was Salvadoran President Tony Saca, who said the Colombian government should be able to defend its citizens.

"We need to understand Colombia has the legitimate right to go after terrorists ... wherever they may be, of course without harming the sovereignty of another country," Saca said.

---

Associated Press writers E. Eduardo Castillo and Jonathan M. Katz in Santo Domingo; Frank Bajak in Bogota, Colombia; and Ian James in Caracas, Venezuela contributed to this report.

Load Comments