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Hugo Chavez severs diplomatic ties with Colombia

Video by Florence VILLEMINOT , Clément MASSE

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2010-07-23

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez (pictured) announced Thursday that he is severing diplomatic ties with neighbouring Colombia, which recently accused Chavez of harbouring leftist guerrilla rebels.

AP - Venezuela’s army warned neighbor Colombia on Friday it was ready to repel any attacks a day after President Hugo Chavez cut ties over Bogota’s charges that Venezuela was harboring leftist Colombian guerrillas.

Socialist Chavez’s severing of diplomatic relations has ratcheted up tensions between OPEC oil producer Venezuela and U.S. ally Colombia in a volatile Andean region plagued by marauding guerrilla armies and drug-trafficking gangs.

While most observers believe a military clash is unlikely, Colombia and Venezuela are among the most militarized nations in South America and have sparred and squabbled in the past over border security and guerrillas.

Venezuelan Defense Minister General Carlos Mata appeared on television in Caracas, dressed in green military fatigues and flanked by his top commanders, to declare unstinting loyalty to Chavez and sternly warn the government of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

Uribe, who will be replaced by President-elect Juan Manuel Santos on Aug. 7, lately has ramped up accusations that left-wing guerrillas are given free rein in Venezuelan territory by Chavez’s government.

Mata, echoing Chavez’s words, rejected what he called Colombia’s “aggression.” Venezuela has dismissed as lies the charges by Colombia, which presented photos, videos and maps to the Organization of American States to back its allegations about the rebels’ presence.

“The Venezuelan people and the Colombian government should know that the (Venezuelan) Bolivarian National Armed Forces, as guarantor of the nation’s security, will respond firmly if any foreign forces seek to violate our sacred soil,” Mata said.

He said the Venezuelan military, which has some 20,000 troops along the 1,375-mile (2,200 km) porous border, was “operationally prepared.”

Declaring the diplomatic break with Bogota on Thursday, Chavez ordered “maximum alert” on the frontier but there have been no reports of significant troops movements so far.

Most analysts believe the tense stand-off will persist until Santos, a conservative ally of Uribe, takes office.

Chavez has publicly expressed the hope Colombian-Venezuelan relations, which were turbulent with Uribe in power, can be returned to normal under Santos, who has been careful to avoid public comment on the dispute so far.

Santos, who as defense minister played a major role in Uribe’s energetic military sweeps against guerrilla groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has said he favors dialogue with Caracas.

Tit-for-tat accusations

As the nationalist rhetoric flowed, other Latin American governments, including regional powerhouse Brazil and the Unasur grouping of South American states, were working to try to defuse the crisis through diplomatic mediation.

However, Colombia said it could take its allegations of cross-border attacks by rebels it says are based in Venezuela to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Bogota says Venezuela is failing in its international obligations by not acting against the drug-trafficking guerrillas.

Mata repeated Chavez’s arguments that Colombia threatens Venezuela by letting U.S. forces use Colombian military bases. “They’re the ones who are putting hemispheric security at risk,” he said in his TV broadcast.

The specter of war in the region arose in 2008 after a Colombian bombing raid on a FARC guerrilla camp in Ecuador. Chavez responded by ordering tanks to the Colombian border in support of his leftist ally President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, who broke relations with Bogota and sent his own troops to the frontier.

Venezuelan government officials have said they could announce further sanctions against Colombia, such as suspending commercial flights, to bolster their rejection of Bogota’s charges about the presence of guerrilla camps in Venezuela.

Chavez, who portrays himself as an anti-U.S. and anti-capitalist standard bearer in Latin America, already had suspended bilateral trade ties last year to protest the Colombian bases deal with the United States.

This slashed bilateral trade to a fraction of the previous nearly $7 billion commerce annually, and analysts say both countries have much to lose if the rift deepens. Millions of Colombians live and work in Venezuela.

Although a war is seen as unlikely, the two countries’ militaries have competing strengths and capabilities.

Colombia’s army, with some 178,000 soldiers, is more than twice the size of the neighboring Venezuelan and Ecuadorean armies combined and is battle hardened in fighting rebels, paramilitaries and drug traffickers. U.S. trainers and billions of dollars in U.S. aid have bolstered their military capacity.

Venezuela’s military, while lacking combat experience, has been strengthened by multibillion-dollar arms and equipment purchases in recent years.

Date created : 2010-07-22


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