Friday, March 7, 2008

Venezuelan Troops Arrive at Town Near Colombia's Border

Venezuelan Troops Arrive at Town Near Colombia's Border

By Jack Chang

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San Antonio, Venezuela - The conflict between Venezuela and neighboring Colombia is a war of words so far, but its effects already are being felt in this border town, where newly arrived troops and frustrated motorists filled the streets Thursday.

Beefed-up border enforcement has targeted the town's main source of income, illegal fuel smuggling from Venezuela, where a gallon of gasoline costs about 12 cents, to Colombia, where it costs more than 20 times that.

That's sparked massive gridlock near the border and street protests by those hurt by the new restrictions.

"We're the people most affected by this conflict," said Jose Carriedo, a bus driver who's been unable to work this week because of gasoline shortages. "We've always lived perfectly well with our Colombian neighbors, and we see this as a fight between the leaders, not the people."

Town residents also have witnessed an influx of troops, ordered by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to beef up the country's 1,370-mile border with Colombia. About 300 Venezuelan National Guard troops arrived in San Antonio on Tuesday from the coastal state of Sucre, according to two members of the unit.

Chavez has ordered 10 combat battalions, made up of more than 9,000 troops, as well as tanks, ships and aircraft to the border.

"We don't know how long we'll stay," National Guard soldier Carlos Rodriguez said as he made his way down San Antonio's main street in fatigues and black combat boots. "We're here to help secure the border."

The border restrictions went into effect Monday after Chavez threatened to go to war with Colombia in retaliation for that country's military incursion into Ecuador last Saturday, which killed 17 members of the guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, including a top leader, Raul Reyes.

Chavez has defended the guerrillas, known by their Spanish initials as the FARC, and has negotiated the release of six of the more than 700 hostages in the group's hands. Colombian officials charge that they found computer documents during Saturday's raid showing that Chavez gave the FARC $300 million last year, an accusation Chavez has denied. The group, which the United States label terrorists, has fought Colombia's government since the 1960s.

On Thursday, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega followed the example of his allies Chavez and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa in breaking diplomatic ties with Colombia. Correa announced Thursday that the FARC was preparing to release former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and 11 other hostages this month, and said Saturday's attack had thwarted the plan.

After cutting diplomatic ties with Colombia this week, Chavez pledged to obstruct cross-border trade, which amounted to $6.5 billion last year. More than $5 billion came from Colombian exports of sugar, eggs and other products to Venezuela.

In San Antonio, the Venezuelan National Guard began checking the gas tanks of every car crossing into Colombia and siphoning out fuel that was over the amount allowed into that country. With the world's seventh biggest oil reserves, Venezuelans pay among the lowest gas prices in the world.

Before the restrictions, about 30,000 Colombians crossed the border in San Antonio every day to work in Venezuela, and Venezuelans went the other direction to shop.

"The situation is very grave on the border," city councilman Alejandro Garcia said. "For a problem that's between Ecuador and Colombia, we Venezuelans are paying the price."

He added that the fuel restrictions had forced a local jeans factory to close after it didn't receive enough diesel oil to keep production going.

At a news conference with Correa, Chavez said Wednesday night that the border measures were designed to defend Venezuela from a possible Colombian attack. He's labeled Colombian President Alvaro Uribe a criminal and accused him of committing genocide against his own people.

"This movement is merely defensive," Chavez said. "Our path is that of peace."

Many in San Antonio speculated that Chavez had sent troops to the region to protect guerrillas taking shelter there from Colombian attack. Many here that said extortion, kidnappings and executions at the hands of Colombian as well as Venezuelan guerrillas were regular occurrences.

"Of course there are Colombian guerrillas here, and the government knows where they are," Garcia said.

More than anything, the new measures have divided a close-knit community that's socialized and worked on both sides of the border. As many as 5 million Colombians live in Venezuela, many of them having fled decades of war in their own country.

"None of us want any fighting to happen," said Yolanda Uribe, a Colombian who's long worked and lived in San Antonio. "We don't need it here or there."

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