Monday, March 3, 2008

Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia Seek Support In Crisis

Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia Seek Support In Crisis
By REUTERS
Published: March 3, 2008
Filed at 11:34 a.m. ET


SAN ANTONIO, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuela, Ecuador and Colombia all sought international backing on Monday in a crisis that raised the specter of war after Venezuela and Ecuador deployed troops to the Colombian border.

The crisis erupted after Colombia bombed and sent troops inside Ecuador in a weekend raid that killed a Colombian rebel leader in his jungle camp in a major blow to Latin America's oldest guerrilla insurgency.

Governments from France to Brazil sought to defuse the crisis in the Andes, where Washington ally Colombian President Alvaro Uribe faces left-wing leaders fiercely opposed to U.S. free-market proposals for the region.

Traffic was normal in San Antonio at the main border crossing point between Venezuela and Colombia and while Venezuela and Ecuador said they had reinforced their borders, there was no immediate sign of any mobilization.

Venezuela state TV offered blanket coverage of the crisis but it showed no images of tanks, planes or troops moving and no other media reported military movements in the border area.

Colombia said it would not send extra troops to its frontiers with Venezuela and Ecuador.

Bogota justified its operation on Monday by saying international law allows such actions against "terrorists" and accused Ecuador of permitting the Marxist FARC rebels to take refuge in its territory.

"We have never been a country for ventures either in politics or in military matters," Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos told a U.N. human rights commission in Geneva. "We have always been respectful of the principal of non-interference."

But Ecuador, a close ally of the larger, richer Venezuela, said Colombia deliberately violated its sovereignty and urged Latin American governments to pressure Bogota so that it does not repeat its "aggression."

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is struggling to fix chronic food shortages in the OPEC nation, sent tanks to the border and threatened to counterattack with Russian-made jets should Colombia unleash a similar raid in Venezuela.

Chavez, who urged governments to side against Colombia, also closed his embassy in Bogota and fellow leftist Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa expelled Colombia's ambassador from Quito. Chavez and Correa both called conservative Uribe a liar.

With Chavez warning war could break out, there was immediate impact on the economies of the three Andean nations which share active trade ties.

Venezuelan and Ecuadorean debt and Colombia's currency all lost value on Monday, reflecting worries of increased risk in investing in the countries.

"It raises headline risks for all three countries significantly," Gianfranco Bertozzi of Lehman Brothers said.

NEIGHBORS SEEK TO DEFUSE CRISIS

Brazil, the region's diplomatic heavyweight, said it would seek to resolve the standoff, cautioning that the tensions were destabilizing regional ties.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet demanded Colombia explain to the region why its troops entered Ecuador.

"A situation of this nature without a doubt merits an explanation," she said. "The most important thing today is that we can avoid an escalation of this conflict."

France, which has worked to free rebel-held hostages, called for restraint on all sides and said the rebel's killing was bad news because he had been pivotal in freeing hostages.

Colombia, which apologized for the raid, sought to ease tensions.

Despite the leaders' passions and brinkmanship, as well as the risk of military missteps on the tense border, political analysts said a conflict was unlikely.

Chavez -- the leader of Andean leftists -- was more interested in firing up his base of support with rhetoric and can ill afford to lose food imports from Colombia, they added.

The opposition criticized Chavez for drawing Venezuela into a crisis over a raid that involved other nations.

"The odds of an escalation to a war-like conflict still seem modest, with so much at stake for all sides," Bertozzi said. "Tension should therefore dissipate in the coming days."

(Additional reporting by Antonio de la Jara in Santiago, Patrick Markey in Bogota and Raymond Colitt in Brasilia; Writing by Saul Hudson; Editing by Eric Beech)

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