Venezuela arrests more Colombians as feud simmers

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela has arrested 19 Colombians accused of carrying illegal arms and cutting trees, in the latest of a series of such incidents stoking tensions between the Andean neighbours, state media said yesterday.

Colombia warned its citizens last month against visiting Venezuela after about 20 Colombians were arrested and accused of spying on President Hugo Chavez’s government.

Mirroring a political division across Latin America, Chavez’s socialist administration has been squabbling for years with US ally and right-wing Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

Bilateral trade has ground to a virtual halt and violent incidents have increased along their lengthy border, where rebel groups and smuggling gangs operate.

Radio Nacional said the 19 Colombians were picked up in central Miranda state. “It is possible they might belong to a military cell,” the state radio station quoted local mayor Juan Aponte as saying. It said the Colombians were indiscriminately chopping down trees, as well as carrying guns and ammunition.

Colombia holds a presidential election at the end of this month, and Chavez has said he will not re-establish relations if former defence minister Juan Manuel Santos wins.

Yesterday Venezuela’s state news agency said five Colombians of a group arrested in late March on suspicion of spying on the country’s electricity infrastructure had been transferred to military courts in an effort to extend their detention.

Colombia protested after Venezuela said several Colombians had been arrested with photographs of electricity substations, transmission systems and highways, and that some of them were carrying Colombian army ID cards.

Chavez has clamped down on trade with Colombia in recent months in protest at a military cooperation deal signed between Washington and Bogota last October. He says the agreement could set the stage for an invasion of his OPEC nation, an accusation that Colombia and the United States dismiss.

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