Venezuela sends tanks and troops to border with Colombia

Monday, March 3, 2008
Venezuelan soldiers lined up Sunday before boarding a military transport at Fort Paramacay in Valencia, Venezuela.
Juan Carlos Hernandez
Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Warning that Colombia could spark a war, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez sent tanks and thousands of troops to the countries' border Sunday and ordered his government's embassy in Bogota closed.

The leftist leader warned Colombia's U.S.-allied government that Venezuela will not permit acts like Saturday's killing of top rebel leader Raul Reyes and 16 other Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrillas at a camp across the border in Ecuador.

"Mr. Defense Minister, move 10 battalions to the border with Colombia for me, immediately -- tank battalions, deploy the air force," Chavez said during his weekly TV and radio program. "We don't want war, but we aren't going to permit the U.S. empire, which is the master [of Colombia] ... to come to divide us."

He ordered the Venezuelan Embassy in Bogota closed and said all embassy personnel would be withdrawn. It pushes already tense relations between the South American neighbors to their lowest point yet, with potentially far-reaching effects on billions of dollars in cross-border trade.

Though Chavez didn't say how many troops he was sending, a Venezuelan battalion traditionally has some 600 soldiers -- meaning some 6,000 could be headed to the border.

Chavez called the Colombian government "a terrorist state" as he sided with the leftist rebels it has battled for decades, saying its military "invaded Ecuador, flagrantly violated Ecuador's sovereignty."

Speaking in Texas, U.S. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said officials were monitoring the situation.

Neither Colombia's foreign minister nor the country's military leadership would comment on Chavez's latest move when pressed by reporters for comment Sunday as they left a funeral service in Bogota for a Colombian soldier killed in Saturday's raid.

"This is something very serious. This could be the start of a war in South America," Chavez said. He warned Colombian President Alvaro Uribe: "If it occurs to you to do this in Venezuela, President Uribe, I'll send some Sukhois" -- Russian warplanes recently bought by Venezuela.

He called Uribe "a criminal" accusing him of being a "lapdog" of Washington saying "Dracula's fangs (are) are covered in blood."

The slaying of Reyes and 16 other guerrillas, Chavez said, "wasn't any combat. It was a cowardly murder, all of it coldly calculated."

"We pay tribute to a true revolutionary, who was Raul Reyes," Chavez said, recalling that he had met rebel in Brazil in 1995 and calling him a "good revolutionary."

"The Colombian government has become the Israel of Latin America," an agitated Chavez said, mentioning another country that he has criticized for its military strikes. "We aren't going to permit Colombia to become the Israel of these lands. ... Uribe, we aren't going to permit you."

"Someday Colombia will be freed from the hand of the (U.S.) empire," Chavez said. "We have to liberate Colombia," he added, saying Colombia's people will eventually do away with its government.

Chavez maintains warm relations with the Colombia's largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and has sought to play a role as mediator in the conflict despite his growing conflict with Colombia's government.

Colombia and Venezuela have been locked in a diplomatic crisis since November, when Uribe ended Chavez's official role negotiating a proposed hostages-for-prisoners swap.

Nevertheless, the FARC freed four hostages to Venezuelan officials last week, and they were reunited with their families in Caracas. It was the second unilateral release by the FARC this year.

Chavez has recently angered Uribe by urging world leaders to classify the leftist rebels as "insurgents" rather than "terrorists."

The FARC has proposed trading some 40 remaining high-value captives, including former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. defense contractors, for hundreds of imprisoned guerrillas.

In Ecuador, army Gen. Fabian Narvaez told The Associated Press that soldiers had found the bodies of 15 rebels and that soldiers planned to hand the bodies over to Ecuadorean officials, who will conduct forensic exams.

He said three Ecuadorean battalions have been stationed in the area in the country's northeastern jungle since Saturday, just a few miles from Colombian territory.

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