Los Angeles Times
March 6, 2008
BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- Even as relations remained tense between Colombia and Venezuela, there were signs Wednesday that the Andean region's most serious crisis in recent years might be easing.
In Washington, the Organization of American States passed a consensus resolution that used mutually acceptable language to rebuke Colombia for having violated Ecuadorean sovereignty Saturday in a raid that killed a high-ranking rebel leader and 16 others.
The 34-member organization voted to "reaffirm the principle that the territory of a state is inviolable and may not be the object, even temporarily, of military occupation or of other measures of force taken by another state, directly or indirectly, on any grounds whatsoever."
The OAS also agreed to Ecuador's demand that a four-member fact-finding commission be sent to the region and deliver a report to a council of foreign ministers meeting in Washington on March 17.
Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Maria Isabel Salvador said the OAS has "passed an historical test . . . and confirmed its reason for being."
Colombian officials said they in turn were satisfied that the resolution stopped short of condemning the mission that killed Raul Reyes, the second-highest commander in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a mile inside Ecuadorean territory.
But Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez added naval ships to a previously announced border mobilization that involves tanks, aircraft and 9,000 additional troops. Venezuela and Ecuador earlier had sent troops to their borders with Colombia, recalled their ambassadors and expelled Colombia's.
Colombia kept up its end of the fight, naming a four-member commission to prepare a case before the International Criminal Court in The Hague to accuse Chavez of "intentional and systematic collaboration with a terrorist organization," the FARC.
Much of the case will be built around electronic files found in three laptops in the Ecuadorean jungle camp where Reyes was killed. According to the Colombian police, the documents indicate that Chavez gave the FARC $300 million and maintained close links to FARC leadership, in violation of international law.
Colombia said Chavez has given "systematic and intentional help" to the FARC as it carried out attacks on Colombia from Venezuelan territory, a "crime against humanity." Colombia has long suspected that Chavez is tolerant of FARC rebels' presence.
Venezuela dismissed the charges and revelations from the laptops as "inventions."
Domestic critics continued to puzzle over why Chavez mobilized troops when it was Ecuador that Colombia invaded. One Chavez official said the mobilization was a "preventive measure," which only fed the suspicions of analysts such as Teodoro Petkoff, who wrote in a newspaper column that the move could be interpreted as a bid to protect FARC units believed to be camped on the Venezuelan side of the frontier.
Chavez may have called for the mobilization to distract voters from internal problems including food scarcities, deteriorating public services and inflation, said David Scott Palmer, a professor who is head of Latin American studies at Boston University.
"As we all know, a good foreign crisis is the best way to deflect attention from domestic problems," Palmer said.
Chavez has sealed the border to cargo, allowing in only perishable goods. While traffic moved smoothly at Colombian-Ecuadorean border points, hundreds of semi-trailers were backed up at several Colombian-Venezuelan crossings.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday that they "applauded" the success of the Colombian military in striking the FARC. But Gates' views were in the minority among governments in the hemisphere, which mostly denounced Colombia's incursion.
Gates said he doubted a military conflict would erupt between Colombia and Venezuela over the military strike in Ecuador. If a conflict did break out, Gates suggested there would be no need for direct American involvement. "The Colombians can take care of themselves," he said.
On Wednesday, both Gates and Mullen demurred when asked whether the U.S. provided intelligence to the Colombians that may have allowed them to launch the weekend strike in Ecuador.
"Well, I would just say that we are very supportive of [Colombian] President [Alvaro] Uribe's efforts to deal with the FARC terrorists," Gates said.
The U.S. sends troops, mostly Army Green Berets, to train the Colombian military.
The FARC said Milton de Jesus Toncel, alias Joaquin Gomez, had taken Reyes' place on the seven-member leadership council.
He is wanted in U.S. federal court on drug trafficking charges, and the State Department has put a $2.5-million bounty on his head.
Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes in Washington contributed to this report.