Venezuela moves troops to Colombian border

March 4, 2008 5:51:31 PM PST
Venezuela and Ecuador reinforced their borders with Colombia on Tuesday 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 crise

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa called his Colombian counterpart, Alvaro Uribe, a "bold-faced liar." Uribe demanded the International Criminal Court try Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for genocide. President Bush accused Chavez 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 Chavez should be prosecuted for allegedly financing the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Uribe cited the documents in a laptop seized in Reyes' 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.

At the moment, it's mostly a war of words, and other nations tried Tuesday to keep it that way, although many said Colombia was wrong to send troops into Ecuador. The Saturday raid killed 23 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 U.S.-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 - 10 battalions - to the border region as "a preventive measure," retired Gen. Alberto Muller Rojas, a former top Chavez aide, told The Associated Press. 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 foodstuffs, which it imports from Colombia.

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

In Washington, Ecuadorean 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.

Despite the withering rhetoric of Uribe, Chavez and Ecuador's President Rafael Correa - who called Uribe a "bold-faced liar" on Tuesday - the biggest losers in Reyes' 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 Tuesday that Reyes died "completing a mission to arrange, through President Chavez, 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' 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."

Several Latin American leftist leaders have suggested the U.S. was intimately involved in executing the raid by 60 Colombian commandos that killed Reyes. Colombian military officials have said in the past that U.S. satellite intelligence and communications intercepts have been key to putting the FARC on the defensive.

On Tuesday, a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command would neither confirm or deny American military participation: "We do provide intelligence support to partner nations but I can't get into details on operations," Jose Ruiz told the AP from Miami.

Uribe's decision to attack Ecuadorean territory reflected Colombia's long frustration over the rebels' ability to obtain refuge just outside its borders.

He complained Tuesday that he provided Chavez with precise information on the location of FARC camps in Venezuela. Chavez and Correa have denied providing support to the rebels in their territories. Correa said Ecuador has "captured" 47 rebel camps in Ecuador during his presidency - "and they ask me if we are accomplices of the FARC?"

In a communique Tuesday, the FARC announced that Reyes' leadership position would be filled by Milton de Jesus Toncel, also known as "Joaquin Gomez," a 61-year-old veteran who in the 1990s led forces that repeatedly defeated Colombia's military.


Associated Press writers Frank Bajak and Vivian Sequera in Bogota; Howard Yanes in El Amparo, Venezuela; Fabiola Sanchez, Jorge Rueda and Ian James in Caracas; and Eliane Engeler in Geneva contributed to this report.