The New York Times
May 19, 2008
LIMA, Peru — Tension between Colombia and Venezuela increased Sunday after Colombia’s defense minister rejected an accusation by Venezuela’s government that 60 Colombian troops had illegally entered a border region of Venezuela known to be a redoubt for Colombian guerrilla groups.
The differing accounts of Colombian troop activity in the area are part of a dispute that has been festering for months. The dispute intensified in March when Venezuela reacted to a Colombian incursion in Ecuador by saying it would respond with military force if Colombia pursued Colombian rebels into Venezuela.
Tension resurfaced last week after Interpol verified that computer files recovered by Colombian forces in the Ecuadorean raid had not been altered. The files refer to military and financial support by Venezuela of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a group classified as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.
Independent proof of such support has not emerged.
In the latest episode, Venezuela’s foreign minister, Nicolás Maduro, said Saturday night that Colombian troops had been detected Friday in Apure State in western Venezuela, about 875 yards from the Colombian border. In a rare written protest, Mr. Maduro asked Colombia “to immediately cease these violations of international law.”
Mr. Maduro said the troops, a battalion from Cubará Military Base in Colombia’s Arauca State, had been quickly told to return to Colombia.
On Sunday the Colombian defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, denied Mr. Maduro’s assertion. “There was no incursion,” Mr. Santos said in comments broadcast on Colombian radio.
“I looked into it and they were not doing anything,” Mr. Santos said of the Colombian troops.
But the Venezuelan information minister, Andrés Izarra, contended Sunday on state television in Caracas that Venezuela had photographs of the incursion.
The Colombian forces were on patrol along the Arauca River, which separates Colombia from Venezuela. Residents on the Venezuelan side have said in recent years that rural areas there are rife with guerrillas from the FARC and Colombia’s second-largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army.
Clashes between the two rebel groups have been reported on Venezuelan territory. Colombian paramilitaries, which oppose both groups, are also known to operate in three western states in Venezuela: Apure, Táchira and Zulia. But sightings of Colombian soldiers on the Venezuelan side are considered rare.