March 03, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuela and Ecuador ordered troops to their borders with Colombia, denouncing the killing of a rebel leader on Ecuadorean soil. Colombia responded on Monday with charges that documents found at a bombed rebel camp link President Hugo Chavez to the guerrillas.
Colombia's police chief, Gen. Oscar Naranjo, said documents recovered from a slain rebel leader's computer indicate Chavez recently sent $300 million to Colombian guerrillas. He said another document indicates the rebels sent money to Chavez when he was a jailed coup leader more than a decade ago.
Naranjo said the files were recovered from a laptop owned by the rebel known as Raul Reyes, who was killed Saturday in a Colombian commando raid on a camp just across the border in Ecuador.
"A note recovered from Raul Reyes speaks of how grateful Chavez was for the 100 million pesos (about $150,000 at the time) that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, delivered to Chavez when he was in prison," Naranjo told a news conference in Bogota.
Venezuelan Vice President Ramon Carrizalez dismissed the charges, saying: "We are accustomed to the lies of the Colombian government."
"Whatever they say has no importance. They can invent anything now to try to get out of that violation of Ecuadorean territory that they committed."
The slaying of Reyes and 16 other rebels in Ecuador on Saturday has sharply raised tensions between the three Andean neighbors.
Chavez on Sunday promised Venezuela would respond militarily if Colombia violates its border, where he ordered tanks as well as thousands of troops. He also ordered closed Venezuela's embassy in Bogota.
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said he deployed troops while also withdrawing his ambassador from Bogota and expelling Colombia's top diplomat.
"There is no justification," Correa said Sunday night, snubbing an earlier announcement from Colombia that it would apologize for the military incursion. Ecuadorean troops headed for the border Monday in helicopters.
Chavez called the killing of Reyes and the other rebels an attack by a "terrorist state," saying Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is a "criminal."
"Mr. Defense Minister, move 10 battalions to the border with Colombia for me, immediately - tank battalions. Deploy the air force," Chavez said during his Sunday radio and television program.
Correa said Colombia deliberately carried out the strike beyond its borders, flying deep into Ecuador to bomb the rebel camp. He said the rebels were "bombed and massacred as they slept, using precision technology."
The Colombian military said the camp was located just over a mile from the border.
Colombian officials have long complained rebels are allowed to take refuge across its borders in both Ecuador and Venezuela.
Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said Monday that his government isn't moving any troops and "we have the situation under control."
"We prefer to leave President Chavez out of this discussion," Santos told Caracol radio. "We don't mention that person, we don't make any comments on what he says, does or suggests."
A U.S. State Department spokesman, Tom Casey, said the United States supports Colombia's right to defend itself against the FARC and called for dialogue between Colombia and Ecuador.
"From our perspective this is an issue between Colombia and Ecuador," he said. "I'm not sure what this has to do with Venezuela."
In Chile, President Michelle Bachelet offered to mediate in the conflict.
"A situation like this requires an explanation from Colombia to Ecuadoreans, to the Ecuadorean president and to the entire region," Bachelet said. "We are very worried."
Mexico to Brazil also offered diplomatic help.
Ecuadorean troops recovered the seminude bodies of 15 rebels in their jungle camp.
Soldiers covered their faces with bandannas to ward off the stench Sunday at the camp, where bodies were splayed on the ground in their underwear. Scattered among the corpses were pieces of clothing, shoes, guns, grenades and a refrigerator.
Soldiers also found three wounded women at the camp - a Mexican philosophy student injured by shrapnel and two Colombians - who were evacuated by helicopter to be treated.
Colombian commandos removed the cadavers of Reyes and one other rebel.
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. He warned Uribe: "If it occurs to you to do this in Venezuela, President Uribe, I'll send some Sukhois" - Russian warplanes recently bought by Venezuela.
"This is saber-rattling, trying to make a point," said Adam Isacson, an analyst for the Washington-based Center for International Policy. By holding a moment of silence in honor of the slain rebels during his program, Chavez "has all but said that the FARC will be safe in Venezuela, and that the Venezuelan armed forces would respond to a similar Colombian incursion into Venezuelan territory."
However, Isacson said, the countries share robust trade, the militaries "are not enthusiastic" and the populations of the neighbors "are hardly consumed by war fever."
The situation pushed tense relations between Venezuela and Colombia to a new nadir, though cross-border trade has not yet been seriously affected.
Naranjo also said documents from a computer seized where Reyes was killed suggested Ecuador's president is deepening relations with the FARC.
There were no concrete reports on troop movements in Venezuela's state media Monday morning. Chavez did not specify how many troops he was dispatching. A Venezuelan battalion traditionally has roughly 600 soldiers.
Chavez has increasingly revealed his sympathies for the leftist FARC, and in January asked that it be struck from international terror lists. The group funds itself largely through the cocaine trade and kidnaps for ransom and political ends.
Colombia said military commandos, tracking Reyes through an informant, first bombed a camp on the Colombian side of the border. It said the troops came under fire from across the border in Ecuador and encountered Reyes' body when they overran that camp.
"It was a massacre," said Correa, who accused Colombia of lying and said some rebels were shot in the back.
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, writing in the Communist Party daily Granma, blamed the U.S. for created the tensions: "We can plainly hear the trumpets of war to the south ... as a consequence of genocidal plans of the Yankee empire."
Colombia and Venezuela have been locked in a diplomatic crisis since Uribe sought in November to halt Chavez's efforts to mediate a prisoner swap. The FARC has since freed six hostages to delegates of Chavez, including four released last week.
The FARC has demanded creation of a safe zone in Colombia to negotiate a swap of some 40 high-value captives, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. defense contractors, for hundreds of imprisoned guerrillas.
Associated Press writers Frank Bajak, Toby Muse, and Vivian Sequera in Bogota; Gabriela Molina and Jeanneth Valdivieso in Quito, Ecuador; Diego Norona in Angostura, Ecuador; and Sandra Sierra in Caracas contributed to this report.