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Latest update : 2008-03-03

Ecuador and Venezuela sent troops to their borders with Colombia as Colombia accused Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa (photo) of having ties to FARC rebels. (Report:K.Williams)

CARACAS/QUITO, March 2 (Reuters) - Venezuela and Ecuador
sent troops to their borders with Colombia on Sunday after
their Andean neighbor bombed Colombian rebels inside Ecuador in
an attack Caracas said could spark a war.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez also deployed tanks to the
frontier, mobilized warplanes and withdrew his diplomats from
Bogota in the worst dispute in the unstable region for years.

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, a close ally of the
leftist, anti-U.S. Chavez, expelled Colombia's ambassador and
recalled his own envoy from Bogota in protest over what he said
was an intentional violation of his nation's sovereignty.

Colombia responded to Correa by offering its apologies for
the troops crossing the frontier, but said the operation on a
jungle rebel camp was necessary because its forces came under
fire from inside Ecuador.   

But Colombia, a U.S. ally, also said it found documents at
the camp that linked Correa to the the guerrillas.  

"May God spare us a war. But we are not going to allow them
to violate our sovereign territory," Chavez, an ex-paratrooper

Colombia's troops killed on Saturday 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
across the border.

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

He and Correa both accused Colombian President Alvaro Uribe
of lying over the attack.

Colombia said it had no intention of violating Ecuador's
sovereignty, saying it acted in "legitimate defense."


But Correa said Colombian warplanes entered Ecuador's air
space to bomb guerrillas while they were sleeping and then flew
troops into the camp in helicopters.

"This was a massacre," said Correa. "We even found bodies
shot in the back ... We will not allow this to go unpunished."

Venezuela's armed forces went on alert and will support
Ecuador, its poorer, smaller ally, "to the last," Chavez said.

Washington, which backs Uribe's fight against the rebels
with its largest military aid outside the Middle East, said it
was monitoring developments after Chavez's "odd reaction."

France called for restraint on all sides, saying the
situation underlined the need for the negotiated release of
FARC hostages, including the most high-profile captive,
French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt.

The FARC said in a statement the killing of a leader who
had been involved in hostage talks should not affect moves to
free captives, according to the Venezuelan government.

Uribe, who is popular at home for his tough stance against
the rebels, has often jousted with neighbors over spillover
from the four-decade conflict. But he has managed differences
with pragmatism and disputes have rarely moved past rhetoric.

Political analysts said a conflict was unlikely because
Chavez -- the leader of Andean leftists -- was more interested
in firing up his support base with rhetoric against Colombia.
He can ill afford to lose the neighbor's food imports amid
chronic shortages, they added.

"We believe a military conflict between the two nations is
unlikely at this stage but the growing political tension sets
the stage for a potential overreaction to future events
increasing the risk of costly miscalculations and missteps,"
Goldman Sachs economist Alberto Ramos said.

Chavez has been in a diplomatic dispute with Uribe for
months over his mediation to free the rebels' hostages. Uribe
says Chavez used the talks to meddle in Colombian affairs.

The Venezuelan called the rebel leader's death the
"cowardly assassination" of a "good revolutionary."

Date created : 2008-03-03