March 04, 2008
RECIFE, Brazil, March 3 -- More accusations of cross-border meddling intensified diplomatic tensions Monday between Colombia and its neighbors Ecuador and Venezuela, as other Latin American leaders tried to defuse a crisis they fear could threaten regional stability.
Venezuela and Ecuador deployed troops to their borders with Colombia, which on Saturday attacked a jungle encampment in Ecuadoran territory used by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. A senior leader of the Marxist insurgency, which has battled the Colombian government for more than four decades and profits from the drug trade, was killed in the raid.
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa formally cut diplomatic ties with Colombia and has joined Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in denouncing the attack as a violation of his country's sovereignty. Venezuela said later that it would expel the Colombian ambassador and other diplomatic personnel. Regional leaders, including officials in Brazil and Chile, strongly questioned Colombia's military incursion into Ecuador, but urged peaceful negotiations to avert a regional military conflict.
Colombian officials said Monday that they do not plan to send troops to the borders with Venezuela and Ecuador. But they contended that the raid proved their long-held suspicion that Colombian guerrillas have been using neighboring countries as havens from which to attack Colombian forces.
"We are accustomed to the Colombian government's lies," said Ramón Carrizalez, Venezuela's executive vice president. "They can invent whatever they like to try to cover up the violation of Ecuadoran territory."
Gen. Óscar Naranjo, director of Colombia's national police, said computers recovered from the camp revealed numerous links between the rebels and the governments of Ecuador and Venezuela, including evidence of more than $300 million in payments from Chávez to the FARC. Colombia's government, led by U.S. ally Álvaro Uribe, has accused the populist administrations of Chávez and Correa of sympathizing with the FARC's stated cause.
The documents were recovered from three computers, according to Naranjo, and their contents will be analyzed by inspectors from the Organization of American States. He said the documents also contain details of international drug deals and efforts to acquire 50 kilograms of uranium. Naranjo did not provide evidence to back those allegations, but he suggested that the documents should spur other countries to get involved in the crisis.
"This means the FARC is taking big steps in the world of terrorism to become a global aggressor," Naranjo said during a news conference. "This is transnational terrorism."
Leaders throughout Latin America tried Monday to cool the crisis. In Brazil, an adviser to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva told a radio station that the conflict was "beginning to destabilize regional relations." Lula planned to talk with Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner on Monday to coordinate diplomatic efforts, said the adviser, Marco Aurélio Garcia.
"We are mobilizing all of Brazil's diplomatic resources and those of other South American capitals to find a lasting solution," Garcia was quoted as saying.
Chile's President Michelle Bachelet suggested that Colombia has the responsibility to thoroughly explain the decision to attack with airstrikes and ground troops across the Ecuadoran border. The raid killed at least 16 people, including Luis Edgar Devia, a top FARC commander also known as Raúl Reyes.
"A situation of this nature requires an explanation from Colombia to Ecuadorans -- to the president of Ecuador and the entire region," Bachelet said in comments broadcast by TV Chile. "We are very worried."
Though the incident that sparked the crisis did not involve Venezuela, Chávez -- a close ally of Correa's and a frequent critic of Colombia's close relations with the United States -- jumped into the dispute.
Relations between Chávez and Uribe have been particularly tense since Chávez tried to mediate a swap of prisoners between FARC and the Colombian government last year. The FARC has since released six hostages to Venezuelan authorities.
On Sunday, Chávez threatened to go to war if Colombia ever carried out a similar attack against the FARC in Venezuelan territory.
"When you threaten war against a country, that's pretty serious," said Peter Hakim, president of the Washington-based policy group Inter-American Dialogue. "Certainly if it were coming from anyone but Hugo Chávez, people would be taking it extremely seriously. But our experience is that he tries to take advantage of what situation emerges to get himself this kind of international attention."
The U.S. State Department defended Colombia's pursuit of FARC members and encouraged bilateral discussions to solve the crisis.
"From our perspective, this is an issue between Colombia and Ecuador," Tom Casey, a department spokesman, told the Associated Press. "I'm not sure what this has to do with Venezuela."