Chavez breaks Colombia ties over rebel charges

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez cut ties yesterday with Colombia in an escalating dispute between the two Andean neighbours over Bogota’s charges that leftist Colombian rebels shelter in Venezuela.

Socialist Chavez, who views US-backed Colombia as a threat, announced he was severing relations after Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s government presented evidence it said showed 1,500 Colombian guerrillas were hiding in Venezuela.

The move elevated tensions in the Andean zone, a regional tinderbox where clashing ideologies and the presence of heavily armed militaries, guerrilla groups and drug-traffickers make for a dangerous and volatile mix. However, an immediate military confrontation did not appear likely.

Chavez called the Colombian accusations, which were presented at the Organization of American States (OAS), a US-inspired “aggression,” and said he was ordering “a maximum alert” on his country’s long border with Colombia.

“We have no other choice but, out of dignity, to totally break our relations with our brother nation of Colombia,” Chavez said live on state television, as he hosted a visit by Argentine soccer idol Diego Maradona.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said he had ordered the closing of Venezuela’s embassy in Bogota and gave the Colombian mission 72 hours to leave. He said Caracas was considering other measures, such as suspending flights.

The Venezuelan leader, who portrays himself as an anti-US and anti-capitalist standard bearer in Latin America, faces an opposition challenge in September 26 legislative elections and has recently ramped up his rhetoric against his perceived foes.

Colombia’s OAS ambassador, Luis Alfonso Hoyos, called Venezuela’s breaking of ties a “historic mistake”.

“Venezuela should break relations with the gangs that kidnap and kill and traffic drugs, and not with a legally constituted government,” he told reporters.

Chavez blamed the rift with Bogota on outgoing Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, whom he called “crazed”. He said the United States had incited Uribe to attack Venezuela.

But he added he hoped that Colombia’s newly elected president, Juan Manuel Santos, who will take office on August 7, would help bring relations back to normal.

The Andean neighbours who share a long, porous border have squabbled on and off for years, stoking fears of a possible military confrontation between the two oil producers.

But both have much to lose. Billions of dollars of bilateral trade have already been lost because of political and diplomatic strains between them over the last year.

Asked if Colombia would move troops to the border following Chavez’s announcement, Colombian presidential spokesman Cesar Velasquez told Reuters: “On Colombia’s part … never”.

Chavez announced the breaking of ties shortly after Colombia presented photos, videos and maps to the OAS permanent council meeting in Washington. Colombia said the evidence showed hundreds of Colombian rebels sheltering in a string of jungle and bush camps inside Venezuela.

Hoyos accused Chavez’s government of tolerating the rebels he said carried out killings, kidnappings and drug-trafficking. “The continent cannot allow this nightmare to spread,” he said.

In its presentation at the OAS, Colombia also demanded that Venezuela allow an international commission and journalists to inspect the 87 sites where he said Colombian rebels were on Venezuelan soil.

Hoyos showed a series of photos and videos of alleged Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, leaders and guerrillas relaxing, roasting pigs and playing a piano at camps he said were well inside Venezuela.

Hoyos said the photos showed the presence of top FARC leaders, such as Ivan Marquez and Rodrigo Granda, at camps up to 15 miles (23 km) inside Venezuela. The encampments were named “Ernesto,” “Berta” and “Bolivarian Camp,” he said, citing information provided by rebel deserters.

These encampments served as “summer camps,” where the rebels “can relax, put on weight and plan attacks,” he said.

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