Venezuela said it deployed tanks and air and sea forces toward the Colombian border on Wednesday in its first major military mobilization of a crisis raising fears for regional stability.
The action escalated tensions over Colombia's weekend raid inside another South American neighbor, Ecuador, to kill rebels in an operation that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, an ally of leftist Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, says could spark war.
While Ecuador and Venezuela have poured soldiers toward their borders with U.S.-backed Colombia in recent days, there had been no noticeable movement of heavy firepower.
With governments worldwide urging thsays e nations to defuse tensions, Colombia has said it will not deploy extra forces to its frontiers in response.
"The empire and its lapdogs are war. We are the road to peace," Chavez said in a brief reference to the dispute during a speech on education he made wearing a military uniform.
The crisis pits OPEC nations Venezuela and Ecuador against Colombia, which receives billions of dollars in U.S. military aid and has received public backing from President George W. Bush in the crisis.
On Wednesday, the United States said it had no independent confirmation of troop movements and questioned why Venezuela is involved in a dispute Colombia and Ecuador should work out, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
"We do think it's curious that a country such as Venezuela would be raising a specter of military action against a country who was defending itself against terrorism. That says a lot about Venezuela," Perino said.
Chavez says Bush is using conservative Colombian President Alvaro Uribe as a proxy in a plot to invade Venezuela, a major oil exporter to the United States. Washington denies the charge, similar to many the Cuba ally has made before.
"The concept of our mobilization is not against the people of Colombia ... but against the expansionist ambitions of the (U.S.) empire," Chavez's defense minister, Gustavo Rangel, said.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has backed Chavez's mediation this year to free hostages held by Colombian rebels, spoke with the Venezuelan leader and urged him to show restraint.
Three days after Chavez ordered the deployments, Venezuela's military said it had started sending 10 tank battalions toward the border and activated its air force and navy. Military analysts estimate such a mobilization could include more than 200 tanks.
The military said the forces would be in place later on Wednesday without specifying how many would reach the border.
Reuters witnesses in several border areas saw no sign of extra forces. Nor did Venezuelan media, which have reported small-scale troop movements in recent days, show any images of a larger mobilization.
Colombia's borders with Venezuela and Ecuador stretch in an arc from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean on the western shoulder of South America. The borders remain open, but Ecuador and Venezuela have cut diplomatic ties.
Ecuador sounded a conciliatory note on Wednesday, offering Colombia a diplomatic way out if it apologizes and pledges not to make other anti-rebel raids across the frontier.
"I hope in the short term relations can be restored," Ecuadorean Vice President Lenin Moreno said.
Led by diplomatic heavyweight Brazil, most Latin American governments have expressed concern for regional stability, condemned Colombia for entering Ecuador to kill Marxist FARC guerrillas and urged it to apologize.
Despite the brinkmanship and risk of military missteps, political analysts said a military conflict was unlikely, especially as governments focused on diplomacy.
Correa, visiting Brazil on a tour of the region to drum up support, urged the Organization of American States, the region's top diplomatic body, to quickly condemn Colombia at an emergency debate in Washington.