Tensions high in South America

March 3, 2008 5:35:16 PM PST
Venezuela and Ecuador sought Monday to make Colombia pay a high diplomatic and economic price for killing a leftist rebel leader in the Ecuadorean jungle - expelling its diplomats, ordering troops to the border and largely halting trade at key points along the frontier. But Colombia quickly struck back, revealing what it said were incriminating documents seized from the rebel camp that suggest its neighbors have been secretly supporting the rebels' deadly insurgency.

And in a tit-for-tat move, Venezuela later displayed the laptop of a slain drug trafficker, which it said contained information implicating Colombia's national police chief in the cocaine trade.

Colombia's national police chief said the documents show Venezuela recently paid $300 million to the rebels, among other financial and political ties that date back years, and that high-level meetings have been held between rebels and Ecuadorean officials.

And this shocker: Colombia says some documents suggest the rebels have bought and sold uranium.

"When they mention negotiations for 50 kilos of uranium this means that the FARC are taking big steps in the world of terrorism to become a global aggressor. We're not talking of domestic guerrilla but transnational terrorism," Gen. Oscar Naranjo said at an explosive news conference.

Naranjo didn't give any details on when, where or from whom the uranium was allegedly bought. He provided no proof of the payment and wouldn't release copies of the documents, which he said are "tremendously revelatory" and are being examined with the help of U.S. experts.

Both Venezuela and Ecuador dismissed his allegations as lies. They expelled Colombia's top diplomats and recalled their own. Ecuador's President Rafael Correa planned to visit five Latin American countries starting Tuesday to defend his decision to break off diplomatic relations, accusing Colombia of being an enemy of peace and lying about the nature of the raid.

Colombia said military commandos, tracking Reyes through an informant, were fired upon from Ecuadorean territory. But Correa said Colombia deliberately carried out the strike beyond its borders, and that the rebels were "bombed and massacred as they slept, using precision technology."

Both countries also began reinforcing their borders, mobilizing troops and tanks as Chavez warned that another Colombian attack could spark a wider South American war.

Venezuelan National Guard troops and customs authorities suspended new imports and exports at the busiest border crossings. One Colombian police commander, Col. Ivan Florez, told the AP that all vehicles with Colombian license plates were being turned away from a key border crossing.

Maintaining trade with Colombia, essential to Venezuela's economy, is one of many factors weighing against outright war. But the bellicose rhetoric has worried Latin American leaders. The presidents of Chile, Mexico and Brazil offered to mediate, and an emergency session of the Organization of American States was scheduled for Tuesday in Washington.

U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the United States supports Colombia's right to defend itself against the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and called for dialogue.

Colombian officials have long complained that rebels take refuge in Ecuador and Venezuela. But Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said Monday that his government isn't moving any troops and "we have the situation under control."

The rebels, who have been fighting for more than four decades for a more equitable distribution of wealth in Colombia, fund themselves largely through the cocaine trade, while holding hundreds of kidnapped hostages for ransom and political ends. The drug trafficking and kidnappings haven't helped their reputation, which is why both Correa and Chavez have denied supporting them.

The documents seized by U.S.-backed Colombian commandos suggest both leaders have been openly lying to the world, Naranjo said.

Killed in the bombing were Reyes, the FARC's top spokesman, and 20 other guerrillas. Ecuador recovered 19 bodies and three wounded female rebels, including a Mexican philosophy student. By then, Colombian soldiers had already carried out the cadavers of Reyes and another rebel, along with three laptops containing the sensitive documents.

Indignant, Chavez said "they wanted to show off the trophy" and called it "cowardly murder, all of it coldly calculated."

"This could be the start of a war in South America," Chavez said.

But Naranjo said laptops show Venezuela's growing responsibility for the conflict.

The $300 million payment was mentioned in a Feb. 14 message in Reyes laptop, along with documents suggesting rebels discussed a possible arms transfer from Venezuela, and revealing close ties between Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda, the top FARC leader, and Venezuela's government.

He quoted one message from Marulanda to Chavez saying "We will always be ready, in the case of gringo aggression, to provide our modest knowledge in defense of the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela."

"This implies more than cozying up, but an armed alliance between the FARC and the Venezuelan government," Naranjo said.

Naranjo said other documents show deepening ties between the rebels and Correa. Ecuador acknowledged that its internal security minister, Gustavo Larrea, met with a FARC emissary but said the intent was strictly humanitarian - to seek the release of hostages held by the rebel group.

Still another document in Reyes' laptop suggests the rebels sent Chavez money when he was jailed in 1992 for leading a coup attempt, Naranjo said. At the time, he was plotting the comeback that eventually led to his election as president in 1998.

"A note recovered from Raul Reyes speaks of how grateful Chavez was for the 100 million pesos (about $150,000 at the time) ... delivered to Chavez when he was in prison," Naranjo said, without giving any more details.

Venezuelan late Monday countered by displaying its own seized laptop in Caracas, saying it holds incriminating information about Naranjo.

Venezuelan Justice Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin said this laptop, belonging to Colombian drug lord Wilber Varela, who was found slain in Venezuela in January, held "important information and notes from the drug traffickers which involve General Oscar Naranjo in drug trafficking."

Rodriguez, who is Chavez's top law enforcement official, said both Naranjo and his brother, who is imprisoned in Germany on drug charges, have links to traffickers. He also alleged that the documents reveal bribes were paid to Colombia's defense minister to occupy posts, and that the Colombians had Varela killed.

Rodriguez also has been a key go-between in contacts with the FARC. He noted that Colombia's attack on the rebels came just after the FARC released four hostages to him, and said the "intent of the fascist Colombian government is to hamper the handover of hostages, because that is the path of peace."

Associated Press writers Frank Bajak and Vivian Sequera in Bogota; Gabriela Molina and Jeanneth Valdivieso in Quito, Ecuador; Diego Norona in Angostura, Ecuador; and Fabiola Sanchez, Jorge Rueda and Ian James in Caracas contributed to this report.