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Chavez sends tanks to Colombian border

Latest update : 2008-03-03

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez ordered the withdrawal of all his diplomats from Bogota, while moving tanks to the Colombian border as tensions soared following a Colombian military incursion in Ecuador.

CARACAS, March 2 (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo
Chavez moved tanks to the Colombian border and mobilized
fighter jets on Sunday, warning Bogota could spark a war after
its troops struck inside another of its neighbors, Ecuador.

Reacting to Colombia's killing on Saturday of a Colombian
rebel inside Ecuador, a Venezuelan ally, Chavez also ordered
the withdrawal of all his diplomats from Bogota in the worst
dispute between the neighbors since he came to office in 1999.

"Mr. Defense Minister, move me 10 battalions to the
frontier with Colombia immediately, tank battalions," Chavez
said on his weekly TV show.

"The air force should mobilize. We do not want war. But  we
are not going to let them ... come and divide and weaken us."

Colombia's military said on Saturday troops killed Raul
Reyes, a leader of Marxist FARC rebels, during an attack on a
jungle camp in Ecuador in a severe blow to Latin America's
oldest guerrilla insurgency. The operation included air strikes
and fighting with rebels across the frontier.

Chavez, who had warned a similar operation in Venezuela
would be "cause for war," said on Sunday he would send
Russian-made fighter jets into U.S. ally Colombia if its troops
struck inside his OPEC country.

Colombia denied it failed to respect Ecuador's sovereignty
and said Saturday's operation was a response to fire from
across the border.

"Colombia has not violated any sovereignty, only acted in
accordance with the principal of legitimate defense," the
government said in a statement.

"The terrorists, among them Raul Reyes, were used to
killing in Colombia and invading the neighboring countries to
hide. Many times Colombia has suffered these situations, which
we are obliged to avoid to defend our citizens," it said.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has often jousted with
neighbors over spillover from its four-decade conflict but has
managed differences with pragmatism. Now the dispute among the
conservative Colombian and his leftist counterparts has gone
from aggressive words to action.

Uribe has complained before that FARC guerrillas take
refuge in frontier areas, though neighbors say his troops are
not doing enough to prevent violent spillover from the

The leftist anti-U.S. Chavez has been in a diplomatic
dispute with his ideological opposite, Uribe, for months
because of the Venezuelan's mediation with FARC rebels over
their hostages. Uribe has accused Chavez of using the mediation
to meddle in Colombian affairs.

On Sunday, Chavez accused Uribe of lying over the details
of the operation that killed the rebel in Ecuador, where the
leftist government of President Rafael Correa is a close
Venezuelan ally. He called it a "cowardly assassination" of a
"good revolutionary."

"I am putting Venezuela on alert and we will support
Ecuador in any situation," Chavez said


Ecuador has withdrawn its ambassador to Colombia in protest
and also questioned if Uribe lied when he initially explained
to his southern neighbor that the strike was in response to
fire from rebels across the border against Colombian troops.

"He (Uribe) is a criminal. Not only is he a liar, a Mafia
boss, a paramilitary who leads a narco-government, and leads a
government that is a lackey of the United States ... he leads a
band of criminals from his palace," Chavez said.

Colombia's government had no immediate reaction to Chavez'
troop movements and comments on Sunday, although Uribe has in
the past called for prudence in diplomatic disputes.

Chavez, a Cuba ally, sees himself as a leader of Latin
America's left and says right-wing Uribe is an obstacle to
uniting South America.

Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue thinktank in
Washington and a critic of Chavez, said the Venezuelan was
playing with fire even if the spat could distract from his
domestic problems such as chronic shortages of some foods.

"There is a risk here as he reacts strongly and often
overreacts, but this could backfire on him," Shifter said.
"This is not going to achieve what he wants in terms of
regional politics ... It maybe is a measure of how concerned he
is about his own domestic support."

"I don't know how far he is going to go with this but it is
a risky political action," he added.

Date created : 2008-03-02