Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela agree to end crisis

March 7, 2008 6:01:49 PM PST
South American presidents reached a testy compromise Friday to resolve a dangerous crisis triggered by a Colombian military attack in Ecuador, stepping back from a week of insults, troop movements and talk of war. After an emotional debate followed on live television throughout Latin America, the presidents of Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador offered one another stiff handshakes and joined other Latin American presidents in approving a declaration resolving to work for a peaceful end to the crisis.

The statement notes that Colombian President Alvaro Uribe apologized for the March 1 raid that killed 25 people including a senior rebel commander, and that he pledged not to violate another nation's sovereignty again. But it also committed all the countries to fight threats to national stability from "irregular or criminal groups," a reference to Colombia's accusation that its two neighbors have ties to Colombian rebels.

In the end, even Ecuador's Rafael Correa - who was brimming with anger during the debate - seemed satisfied.

"With the commitment to never again attack a brother country and the request for forgiveness, we can consider this grave incident as over," he said.

The leaders immediately began to reverse their steps toward conflict.

Colombia pledged not to follow through on its threat to seek genocide charges against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at an international court. Nicaragua said it would restore diplomatic relations with Colombia, broken off only the day before. Chavez said trade with Colombia should "keep increasing," two days after saying he didn't want even "a grain of rice" from his neighbor.

"We're going to begin to de-escalate," Chavez said. "Hopefully this compromise will be honored so this never happens again."

But the agreement didn't eliminate the causes of the crisis: a Colombian insurgency that has spilled across its borders, and a stalemate over international efforts to facilitate a swap of rebel-held hostages for Colombian prisoners.

The showdown underscored Latin America's swerve to the left in recent years - and the increasing isolation of Colombia's center-right government, Washington's strongest ally in Latin America. The United States was the only country in the Americas to offer Colombia unqualified support in the dispute.

Correa, Chavez and Ortega, all leftists aligned against Washington, were the most strident in confronting Uribe, but even more centrist leaders from Argentina, Brazil and Chile lectured him.

The day's loudest applause came when Correa made a final appeal to Uribe to respect their border, saying otherwise no nation can be safe.

The summit featured hours of finger-jabbing lectures, angry speeches and pleas for goodwill. At one point, the atmosphere became so bitter that Correa walked out for what an aide said was a bathroom break. He quickly returned and denounced Uribe as a liar.

"Your insolence is doing more damage to the Ecuadorean people than your murderous bombs," Correa bellowed. "Stop trying to justify the unjustifiable!"

Uribe said his military was forced to act because Colombia's neighbors have provided refuge to the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which finances its anti-government insurgency through kidnapping and the cocaine trade. And he said the rebels responded by doing favors for Chavez and helping Correa get elected.

Uribe held up documents he said were from the laptop of Raul Reyes, the rebel commander killed in the attack. He said one message from Reyes told the guerrillas' top commander about "aid delivered to Rafael Correa, as instructed." Colombia promised to turn over the evidence to Ecuador for investigation.

Correa described Ecuador as a victim of Colombia's conflict, and proposed an international peacekeeping force to guard their border - an idea not included in the summit declaration.

Chavez, for his part, denied Uribe's accusation that he had given $300 million to the rebels. He also said he never sent them weapons.

"I have never done it and will never do it," Chavez said. "I could have sent a lot of rifles to the FARC. I will never do it because I want peace."

As Uribe shifted in his chair, Chavez invited in the mother of French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt - the rebels' highest-profile hostage - and urged Uribe to allow a multinational group into Colombia to get more hostages out. Uribe rejected the idea.

Bolivian President Evo Morales blamed the U.S. for dividing a peaceful Latin America, declaring that over the decades, false labels such as "communist," "drug trafficker," and - since the Sept. 11 attacks - "terrorist" have been ruined lives and justified wars across the region.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon made a similar point, without criticizing the U.S., advising his fellow leaders to "leave aside the adjectives" and work to improve the lives of Latin Americans.

One of the few leaders offering support was Salvadoran President Tony Saca, who said "Colombia has the legitimate right to go after terrorists ... wherever they may be, of course without harming the sovereignty of another country."

-- Associated Press writer E. Eduardo Castillo contributed to this report from Santo Domingo.


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