Venezuela breaks ties with U.S.-allied Colombia

Hugo Chavez accuses government of fabricating evidence in rebel base conflict

Published July 23, 2010 7:45PM (EDT)

Venezuela's defense minister on Friday warned Colombia against provoking a conflict after President Hugo Chavez severed ties with the neighboring country and placed his military on alert.

Defense Minister Carlos Mata read a statement on state television promising "a strong response" if foreign forces cross into Venezuelan territory.

Chavez announced he was breaking off diplomatic relations with Colombia on Thursday, accusing its U.S.-allied government of fabricating evidence showing Colombian rebel bases inside Venezuela.

Despite the diplomatic dispute, cars and pedestrians were moving between the countries as usual at border crossings on Friday, officials on both sides said. Venezuelan Vice President Elias Jaua called the situation on the border normal.

The diplomatic dispute over the presence of Colombian rebels in Venezuela has worsened just as Colombian President Alvaro Uribe prepares to leave office.

Uribe has frequently feuded with the Venezuelan president, and Colombian officials have long complained, mostly in private, that Chavez has harbored leaders of its two main rebel groups.

President-elect Juan Manuel Santos, however, has stressed the importance of mending trade relations with Venezuela that overwhelmingly benefit Colombia's food producers. And Chavez has raised the possibility that relations could be restored under Santos.

Trade between Venezuela and Colombia has fallen 70 percent since Chavez froze relations a year ago in response to Colombia's decision to grant Washington expanded access to its military bases. The scaled back relations have also hurt Venezuelan consumers, as sporadic shortages of items like beef -- once imported from Colombia -- have worsened.

At a meeting of the Organization of American States in Washington on Thursday, Colombian Ambassador Luis Alfonso Hoyos presented photos, videos, witness testimony and maps of what he said were rebel camps inside Venezuela and challenged Venezuelan officials to let independent observers visit them.

He said that roughly 1,500 rebels are hiding out in Venezuela and he displayed aerial photographs of what he identified as rebel camps inside Venezuela. He also showed photos and video of rebel leaders he said were taken at the camps by guerrillas who recently surrendered to the government.

Chavez suggested that Uribe could be attempting to provoke a war, and he insisted that Venezuela does everything possible to prevent members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the smaller National Liberation Army from crossing into Venezuelan territory.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro announced Thursday that Chavez's government had closed its embassy in Bogota and demanded that Colombia's ambassador in Caracas leave the country within 72 hours.

Chavez's envoy to the OAS, Roy Chaderton, said the photographs that Hoyos showed didn't provide any solid evidence of a guerrilla presence in Venezuela.

Chavez suggested the photographs could be bogus, saying Uribe "is capable of anything."

The Venezuelan leader contended Uribe could seek to spur an armed conflict with Venezuela before he leaves office next month. His successor Santos, who was visiting Mexico, declined to comment.

The socialist leader has argued in the past that U.S. officials are using Colombia to portray him as a supporter of terrorist groups to justify U.S. military intervention in Venezuela.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed hope the two countries will work out their differences in a peaceful manner.

Colombian opposition Sen. Piedad Cordoba said Friday at a news conference that "I really don't think there's any interest by any government in protecting groups that operate outside the law."

"This has to be fixed," she said.


Associated Press writers Christopher Toothaker in Caracas, and Vivian Sequera and Jessica Lleras, in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.

By Fabiola Sanchez

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