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Santos offers talks with Venezuela in bid to defuse row

Colombia's new leader President Santos offered in his inauguration speech Saturday talks with Venezuela in a bid to diffuse tensions. Caracas has reciprocated by offering a face-to-face meeting.


AFP - Colombia's new president has offered an olive branch to Venezuela, assuring the neighboring country that "war" was not part of his vocabulary and he was ready for talks to patch up their rift.

His Venezuelan counterpart responded immediately by offering a face-to-face meeting.

Juan Manuel Santos, 58, made the diplomatic overture to Caracas in his inaugural address Saturday, after being sworn in as Colombia's president.

"I prefer a frank and direct dialogue with Venezuela, hopefully as soon as possible," Santos said after thanking countries that had offered mediation in Bogota's row with Caracas.

With Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro listening from a VIP stand, Santos said talks with Caracas must evolve "within a framework of mutual respect, cooperation ... and a strong stand against crime."

Santos, a former defense minister, said Colombia had only peaceful intentions and viewed no country as its enemy, even after Venezuela sent troops to their common border amid growing tensions.

"I don't see enemies either in the national or international arenas," the new president said. "The word 'war' is not part of my dictionary."

In Caracas, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez responded by saying he was ready "to turn the page" and work with Santos.

"I am full of faith, hope and desire to work with the new president of Colombia," Chavez said in a speech broadcast on national television.

He added that if Santos could not travel to Venezuela in the next three or four days, he "will be ready to go for a meeting in Colombia."

Maduro's attendance at the inauguration ceremony was seen as a sign of Chavez's willingness to repair the diplomatic relations broken off July 22, one week after Colombia accused Venezuela of harboring leftist rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

According to Chavez, Maduro was expected to meet Sunday in Bogota his new Colombian counterpart, Foreign Minister Mariangela Holguin.

Santos enjoys strong support from Colombians after his 2006-2009 stint as defense minister, when he was credited with dealing FARC its worst blow in 40 years of fighting.

On March 1, 2008, then-president Alvaro Uribe and Santos ordered the military to attack a clandestine base deep in the jungle in Ecuadoran territory run by Colombian FARC guerrillas. FARC number-two Raul Reyes was killed in the raid, as well as 24 others.

Diplomatic relations with the leftist government in Quito were severed days later and have yet to be fully restored.

Santos said one of his key objectives now was to "rebuild relations with Venezuela and Ecuador and reestablish trust and the preeminence of diplomacy and prudence" in international relations.

Ecuador's Correa said that Santos "can always count on our total support. We are here to ratify that unbreakable bond between our people."

A consummate politician with a pedigree -- his great uncle Eduardo Santos was president from 1938-1942 -- Santos has held several top government positions, including foreign trade minister, head of the treasury department, and vice president of Congress.

An economist and father of three, Santos has announced a government of national unity that includes members of centrist and conservative parties. He even appointed his right-wing election rival, German Vargas Lleras, as interior minister over the very public objections of the outgoing vice president.

On the domestic front, Santos will face the daunting task of pulling Colombia out of its economic quagmire, with 12-percent unemployment and a 46-percent poverty rate.

As a first order of business, he has vowed to create 2.5 million new jobs during his four-year term in office.

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