CARACAS, (Reuters) – Colombia asked the Organization of American States yesterday to deal with its complaint that neighbor Venezuela tolerated the presence of Colombian leftist rebels, after Caracas recalled its ambassador to Bogota in protest at the charges.
The diplomatic moves signaled an escalating dispute between the two Andean neighbours before the Aug. 7 inauguration of Colombia’s newly elected president, Juan Manuel Santos.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s government accused outgoing Colombian President Alvaro Uribe of seeking to wreck moves to repair relations between the two countries, which have often been strained over security and border issues.
“As these steps (for improved relations) are going ahead, Uribe’s government has decided … to dynamite the rapprochement,” Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro told a news conference in Caracas, adding that Caracas was recalling its Bogota ambassador for consultations.
Colombia said on Thursday it had proof backing its accusations that members of Colombian guerrilla groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, and National Liberation Army, ELN, are hiding in the jungle on Venezuela’s side of the border.
Following up on its accusation, Colombia’s presidency on Friday requested that the OAS hold an extraordinary meeting of its permanent council to deal with the alleged presence of the rebels in Venezuela.
The meeting should be held “at the earliest possible opportunity”, a presidency spokesman said in Bogota.
Rejecting the Colombian charges as “an old broken record,” Chavez called Uribe a “mafioso … full of hatred.”
“We’re not going to be provoked,” Chavez said, adding he would give Santos a chance to act on his declared intentions of improving Colombian relations with Venezuela.
“I’m waiting to see,” Chavez said in a broadcast.
Venezuela would study what “political and diplomatic measures” to take in response to what it called Colombia’s “aggression” and these would be announced in due course, Foreign Minister Maduro said.
Colombia said in the last six years it had repeatedly given the Venezuelan government information about the alleged presence of the rebels on Venezuelan soil, but Caracas had failed to react.
In 2008, Bogota released information gleaned from computers taken from a FARC camp that it said showed Chavez had backed the guerrillas financially. Chavez denied the charges.
Maduro said Venezuela’s security forces had followed up information given by Colombia about suspected rebel camps. He said the tip-offs had never proved to be correct.
The latest Colombian charges piled more strain on relations already been damaged by a deal letting U.S. forces use Colombian military bases for anti-drug operations.
Chavez, whose socialist rhetoric and polices have made him an anti-U.S. and anti-capitalist standard-bearer in Latin America and the world, said the deal could herald a U.S. invasion of his OPEC nation.
Maduro, declaring he hoped Santos would act quickly to correct Uribe’s policies, said Venezuela demanded “absolute respect” for its sovereignty, institutions and head of state.
In a statement earlier on Friday, the Venezuelan government said the U.S. Embassy in Bogota had been involved in the announcement by the Colombian Defense Ministry on Thursday, and accused it of “intrigue.”
Colombia’s decades-old guerrilla war often spills into neighboring countries. Two years ago, Colombian forces attacked a FARC camp in Ecuador, killing a top rebel leader. Ecuador and Venezuela broke diplomatic ties with Colombia over the raid and relations have yet to be fully restored.
Maduro said Venezuela had for years sheltered refugees from Colombia’s conflict and that the war should be solved through peace talks rather than through military force.
Chavez denies allegations he supports any guerrilla groups, and says such charges are part of a Washington-led plan to discredit him and his socialist “revolution.”
He does not consider the FARC to be a terrorist group and says he cannot take sides in Colombia’s internal conflict.
Chavez ordered a slowdown of trade between Venezuela and Colombia last year after Bogota let U.S. forces use Colombian military bases. Annual trade had totaled some $7 billion, and the cutoff exacerbated shortages and fueled high inflation in Venezuela, while slowing Colombia’s economic recovery.
Colombia is the main U.S. military ally in South America and has received billions of dollars in U.S. aid to help fight the FARC and ELN, which are funded by kidnapping, extortion and cocaine smuggling.