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Colombia Faces Military Border Blockade from Venezuela and Ecuador

by Peter Walker

Venezuela and Ecuador were today seeking to increase pressure on Colombia over a controversial military raid, as the region's most perilous crisis for years developed into a test of diplomatic strength between their leftwing governments and the heavily US-backed administration in Bogotá.

Colombia, which faces thousands of freshly mobilised troops on its borders with both Ecuador to the south and Venezuela to the north, has attracted widespread regional condemnation for Saturday's bombing raid on a rebel camp one mile inside Ecuadorean territory.

The attack killed at least 21 members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), including a senior commander, Raúl Reyes.

However, Colombia's president, Álvaro Uribe, received strong support yesterday from President George Bush and hit back with a series of claims, including allegations of close collusion between Farc and the Ecuadorean and Venezuelan leaders.

Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, has already rejected a Colombian apology as insufficient. Today he was scheduled to meet Brazil's left-leaning president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, on the latest leg of a six-nation regional tour.

His next stop will be Venezuela for a meeting with the country's president, Hugo Chávez, who has begun shutting down sections of Venezuela's 1,400-mile border with Colombia to try to isolate its neighbour.

Correa yesterday called Uribe a liar who "wanted war", warning fellow South American nations if the Colombian attack goes unpunished, "the region will be in danger".

"The aggressor has to apologise and the international community condemn him," he told reporters in Brasilia. "If not we will have to defend ourselves with our own means."

Already, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Mexico and Argentina condemned Colombia's incursion into Ecuadorean sovereignty.

Ecuador and Venezuela sought to rally further support for their cause at an emergency meeting of the Organisation of American States' regional forum in Washington.

Delegates were deadlocked last night over the wording of a resolution and were to again today. They agreed to create a fact-finding commission headed by the forum's secretary general.

Despite the martial rhetoric, and the presence of thousands of troops in border regions, analysts do not believe war is likely, citing in particular the three countries' heavy dependence on mutual trade, especially the transit of food into Venezuela through Colombia. Additionally, Venezuela's armed forces are widely considered no match for the US-equipped Colombian military.

Colombia has thus far opted not to deploy any extra forces on its borders, relying instead on a concerted diplomatic offensive based around what is says were stunning discoveries gleaned from files on Reyes' laptop, seized in the raid.

The Colombian government said Chávez received money from the drug-funded guerrillas in 1992 when he was an impoverished coup-monger with political ambitions, and that he recently gave the rebels $300m, alleging official Ecuadorean connections with the group.

Although he is ideologically sympathetic to the Marxist Farc, if the allegation is substantiated Chávez could in theory be prosecuted, since internationally Farc is categorised as a terrorist organisation. Yesterday, Uribe called for Chávez to be tried by the international criminal court. A Venezuelan government minister said the allegation was a smear.

At a UN disarmament meeting in Geneva, Colombia's vice president, Francisco Santos, made a further extraordinary claim, saying the seized files revealed the guerrillas were negotiating to obtain radioactive material and hoped to make a "dirty bomb".

However, documents Colombian officials released to reporters did not support this allegation, indicating instead Farc only discussed the possibility of buying uranium to resell at a profit.

Farc said yesterday Colombia's raid gravely damaged chances of further releases of some of the 700 hostages it holds in jungle camps, including Íngrid Betancourt, the ailing Franco-Colombian politician who has become the public face of the captives' plight.

The rebels said Reyes died completing a mission to arrange Betancourt's release through Chávez and the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who has made it a personal cause. Sarkozy said last week that Betancourt could be near death, and that her "martyrdom [would be] the martyrdom of France".

© 2008 The Guardian

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