Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Crisis at Colombia Border Spills Into Diplomatic Realm

Crisis at Colombia Border Spills Into Diplomatic Realm

By Simon Romero

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Caracas, Venezuela - The three-way crisis in the Andes escalated Monday as Ecuador broke off diplomatic relations with Colombia, and Venezuela expelled Colombia's ambassador and other diplomats.

The three countries swapped charges of treachery and deceit, ratcheting up tension in a dispute that began when Colombian forces hunted down and killed a Colombian guerrilla leader on Ecuadorean soil over the weekend.

The Venezuelan Foreign Ministry, in ordering the expulsion of diplomatic personnel of the Colombian Embassy, said it was acting "in defense of the sovereignty of the fatherland and the dignity of the Venezuelan people."

President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, who had expelled Colombia's ambassador over the weekend, went a step further on Monday, breaking off diplomatic relations. The move was not unexpected after his claim that President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia was lying about the nature of the raid.

Venezuela and Ecuador sent troops to the Colombian border on Sunday in response to Colombia's military raid on a rebel encampment in the jungle about a mile inside Ecuador. Colombian forces killed 21 guerrillas belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Colombia's largest rebel group.

In addition to killing a senior rebel leader, Raúl Reyes, Colombia said it recovered his laptop computer, whose contents were at the center of several allegations on Monday.

At a news conference in Bogotá, General Oscar Naranjo, Colombia's police chief, accused Venezuela of channeling $300 million to the FARC, based on what he said was information obtained from Reyes's computer.

Naranjo also said computer documents showed financial support from the FARC for President Hugo ChÁvez of Venezuela, going back to the time Chávez spent in prison after an unsuccessful coup attempt in Caracas in 1992.

"This implies more than cozying up, but an armed alliance between the FARC and the Venezuelan government," Naranjo said.

Venezuela's government, which sent tank units to its border with Colombia in a response to the Colombian raid, denied aiding the rebels. "We are used to the Colombian government's lies," said Vice President Ramón Carrizales.

Naranjo also referred to information suggesting that the FARC, which has been at war with Colombia's government for the last four decades, had appeared interested in acquiring 110 pounds of uranium.

The general displayed photographs and documents he said were taken from Reyes's computer, but the context of the information was unclear.

Ecuador also rejected claims by Colombia of ties with the FARC, and sent 3,200 troops to Sucumbios, an Amazonian province near its border with Colombia where the attack on the FARC's camp took place.

Correa, the Ecuadorean president, said the Colombian rebels were killed in their sleep "in their pajamas," and not in the heat of pursuit as Colombia's security forces said. Ecuadorean emergency officials recovered several wounded members of the FARC, transporting them to hospitals in Quito.

Faced with one of Latin America's worst diplomatic crises in recent years, the Organization of American States said it would convene a meeting in Washington on Tuesday to try to prevent an escalation of the dispute between Colombia, a staunch Bush administration ally, and the leftist governments of Ecuador and Venezuela.

Even as Colombia's government offered details on the FARC's relations with Venezuela and Ecuador, Colombian officials said Monday that they would not send more troops to the borders with the two countries in response to the mobilizations ordered by ChÁvez and Correa.

Because of the FARC's resilient history at the heart of Colombia's war, it has had contact with insurgencies and governments throughout Latin America and beyond, including the United States, which classifies the FARC and other armed groups in Colombia as terrorists.

For instance, in 1998 a Clinton administration official, Philip Chicola, then the State Department's director of Andean affairs, had a clandestine meeting with Reyes in Costa Rica in an effort to establish a way of communicating with the FARC during times of crisis.

The meeting was described in a diplomatic cable written by Chicola in January 1999 and declassified in 2004. Also present at the meeting was Reyes's wife, Olga Marín, a woman believed to be the daughter of the FARC's top commander, Manuel Marulanda, and also reported to be present, and possibly wounded, in the raid on the jungle camp on Saturday.

The Bush administration on Monday reiterated its support for Colombia's struggle against the FARC and cocaine trafficking, but called for a negotiated solution to the crisis.

"This, for us, is an issue between the governments of Colombia and Ecuador," said Tom Casey, deputy spokesman at the State Department, in a briefing to reporters on Monday in Washington. "We believe it's appropriate for them to work that out through diplomatic discussion."

Still, what began over the weekend as an operation by Colombian forces in Ecuadorean territory has evolved into a wider regional matter.

"Our view of this issue right now is that there is no doubt that there is a territorial violation and we condemn it," said Celso Amorim, Brazil's foreign minister, speaking to reporters in Brasília. "It raises insecurity problems in all countries of the region, mostly in the smaller ones."

And amid the Colombian accusations, Chávez remains at the center of the increasing tension, with his political opponents here criticizing his decision to mobilize troops and fighter jets in a show of Venezuelan force.

"If anyone has to protest, it is Ecuador's government, as the military incident took place in Ecuadorean territory, not ours," Teodoro Petkoff, the publisher of the newspaper Tal Cual, said in an editorial. "Venezuela has nothing to complain about."

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