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'Chavez-FARC ties closer than known'

US intelligence officials say seized computer files showing strong ties between Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez and FARC rebels are authentic. But Caracas insists the files, seized by Colombia, are fake. (Story: J.Fanciulli and O.Winspear)

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WASHINGTON, May 9 (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo
Chavez's ties to Colombian rebels are deeper than previously
thought, U.S. officials said on Friday, following an analysis
of files on a dead guerrilla leader's laptops.


The files appear to be authentic and underscore U.S.
concerns about Chavez's quest for more influence in the region,
an intelligence official said. Their discovery in March raised
speculation the United States would put Venezuela on its list
of state sponsors of terrorism.


"It (the analysis) reinforces the U.S. government's strong
position that Chavez is attempting in various ways to project
his influence throughout the region and that influence in some
ways could be construed as destabilizing," the intelligence
official said.


Another U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity
because the issue involves classified information, described
the files as a huge public relations win for Colombia, which is
battling the guerrillas of the leftist Revolutionary Armed
Forces of Colombia, or FARC.


"The involvement does seem to extend fairly high up in the
Venezuelan government. This isn't a bunch of local yokels on
the border doing their own thing," the official said.


Chavez contends the Colombian government faked the files.


Although Chavez's sympathies for the FARC are well known,
Colombia has said the files seized in a March attack show
Chavez offered financial support to the group.


The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that the files
also indicate Venezuela offered to arm the rebel group,
possibly with rocket-propelled grenades and ground-to-air
missiles. It said Venezuela offered FARC the use of a port to
receive arms shipments.


The files document discussions between the rebels and
Chavez about closer ties and portray a "deeper relationship
than previously known," the intelligence official said.


The March attack by Colombia on a rebel camp in Ecuador
killed a senior FARC leader and inflamed regional tensions.
That and other recent attacks are seen as having weakened the
rebel group that has been fighting a four-decade civil war in
Colombia, to the point where FARC is "on its heels," the
intelligence official said.


"However, they have shown an ability in the past to regroup
and to regenerate leadership."


Bernardo Alvarez, Venezuela's ambassador to the United
States, told the Journal in an interview on Wednesday, that the
computer files were "false and an attempt to discredit the
Venezuelan government."


The files indicate Venezuela has raised the prospect of
drawing up a joint security plan with FARC and has sought basic
training in guerrilla-warfare techniques, the Journal said,
suggesting Chavez was preparing for a possible U.S. invasion of
Venezuela.

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