Friday, March 7, 2008

Colombia crisis ends with accord

Colombia crisis ends with accord

SANTA DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (CNN) -- The presidents of Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador Friday signed a declaration to end a crisis sparked when Colombian troops killed a rebel leader and 21 others inside Ecuadoran territory.

Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, left, and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Friday.

1 of 2 "With the promise not to ever again assault a brother country and the request for forgiveness [by Colombia], we can consider this very serious incident resolved," said Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa.

Correa, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe shook hands at the end of what had been a contentious meeting of the Rio Group of Latin American leaders.

In the accord, the leaders condemned Colombia's action and affirmed that no country has the right to violate the territory of another. Correa and Chavez also accepted Colombia's apology for the incident and accept that Uribe will not repeat it.

In a nod to Colombia's concerns, the declaration also committed all the countries to fight threats to national stability from "irregular or criminal groups," The Associated Press reported.

Steps were taken immediately to defuse tensions, AP reported. Colombia pledged not to seek genocide charges against Chavez at an international court, while Nicaragua said it would restore the diplomatic relations it severed with Colombia a day earlier, according to AP.

Chavez said trade with Colombia should "keep increasing," two days after saying he didn't want even "a grain of rice" from his neighbor, AP reported.

The goodwill gestures capped a summit in which Correa and left-leaning ally Chavez verbally pummeled Uribe, with Correa chiding him for "insolence" and urging him to "stop trying to justify the unjustifiable."

Uribe in turn called Correa a communist.

The diplomatic spat began Saturday when Colombian troops and police crossed into Ecuador and killed 22 people. The dead included Luis Edgar Devia Silva, known as "Raul Reyes," the second-in-command of the leadership council of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC in its Spanish acronym.

Reyes was the first member of the seven-member leadership council, known as general secretariat, to be killed by Colombia in the 44 years the rebel group has been fighting to overthrow the government.

Another member of FARC's leadership council -- Ivan Rios, the nom de guerre of Manuel de Jesus Munoz -- was killed by his chief of security in a separate incident, said a Colombian official, according to AP.

FARC is estimated to be holding at least 700 hostages in the jungles of Colombia and has been accused by the United States of being a terrorist organization.

Colombia had justified the attack by saying it was necessary to counter a threat to its national security.

The government said it seized laptops from the attacked rebel camp showing that Venezuela gave $300 million to the rebels and that senior Ecuadoran officials met with FARC rebels.

Ecuador and Venezuela denied the allegations, promptly condemned the raid and moved troops to their borders with Colombia.

"I have never done it and will never do it," Chavez said of the allegations he gave $300 million to the rebels, AP reported. "I could have sent a lot of rifles to the FARC. I will never do it because I want peace."

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Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Colombia Says Rebels Sought to Make Dirty Bomb

Colombia Says Rebels Sought to Make Dirty Bomb
By SIMON ROMERO
The New York Times


CARACAS, Venezuela — Colombia added a new accusation against the FARC rebel group on Tuesday, saying Colombian forces had found evidence that the rebels had been seeking the ingredients to make a radioactive dirty bomb.

The accusation, made by Colombia’s vice president, Francisco Santos, at a United Nations disarmament meeting in Geneva, represents a sharp verbal escalation surrounding the three-country dispute involving Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador. The quarrel began over the weekend when Colombian forces hunted down and killed a Colombian guerrilla leader on Ecuadorean soil.

Material found on a laptop computer recovered in that raid provided the basis for Mr. Santos’s accusations about a dirty bomb, a weapon that combines highly radioactive material with conventional explosives to disperse deadly dust that people would inhale.

“This shows that these terrorist groups, supported by the economic power provided by drug trafficking, constitute a grave threat not just to our country but to the entire Andean region and Latin America," Mr. Santos said in a statement that was posted in Spanish on the disarmament conference’s web site. The rebels were “negotiating to get radioactive material, the primary base for making dirty weapons of destruction and terrorism,” he said.

It was unclear from Mr. Santos’s statement whom the rebels were negotiating with.
Mr. Santos based his claim on information provided Monday in Bogotá by Colombia’s national police chief about a deal involving the FARC’s negotiations for 110 pounds of uranium.

The tension further escalated when President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia said Tuesday that he would file a complaint with the International Criminal Court against President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, accusing him of providing financial assistance to the FARC, which stands for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Colombia’s largest rebel group.

In another reaction to Colombia’s cross-border raid, Elías Jaua, Venezuela’s agriculture minister, said that Venezuela was planning to close its border with Colombia to halt commercial trade.

On Monday, Ecuador broke off diplomatic relations with Colombia, and Venezuela expelled Colombia’s ambassador and other diplomats.

The three countries have been swapping accusations of treachery and deceit in the dispute over the killing of the guerrilla leader, Raúl Reyes, by Colombian forces.
The Venezuelan Foreign Ministry, in ordering the expulsion of the Colombian Embassy’s diplomatic personnel, said it was acting “in defense of the sovereignty of the fatherland and the dignity of the Venezuelan people.”

President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, who expelled Colombia’s ambassador over the weekend, went a step further on Monday by breaking off diplomatic relations. The move was not unexpected after his claim that Mr. Uribe of Colombia was lying about the nature of the raid.

Venezuela and Ecuador sent troops to the Colombian border on Sunday in response to Colombia’s military raid on the rebel encampment in the jungle about a mile inside Ecuador. Colombian forces killed 21 guerrillas in the FARC.

In addition to killing Mr. Reyes, Colombia said it had recovered his laptop computer. Its contents have since been at the center of several allegations.
At a news conference in Bogotá, Gen. Oscar Naranjo, Colombia’s police chief, accused Venezuela of channeling $300 million to the FARC, based on what he said was information obtained from Mr. Reyes’s computer.

General Naranjo also said computer documents showed financial support from the FARC for Mr. Chávez of Venezuela, going back to the time Mr. Chávez spent in prison after an unsuccessful coup attempt in Caracas in 1992.

“This implies more than cozying up, but an armed alliance between the FARC and the Venezuelan government,” General Naranjo said. Venezuela’s government, which sent tank units to its border with Colombia in a response to the Colombian raid, denied aiding the rebels. “We are used to the Colombian government’s lies,” Vice President Ramón Carrizales said.

General Naranjo displayed photographs and documents he said had been taken from Mr. Reyes’s computer, but the context of the information was unclear. Ecuador also rejected claims by Colombia of ties with the FARC, and sent 3,200 troops to Sucumbios, an Amazonian province near its border with Colombia where the attack on the FARC’s camp took place.

Mr. Correa, the Ecuadorean president, said the Colombian rebels had been killed in their sleep “in their pajamas,” and not in the heat of pursuit as Colombia’s security forces had said. Ecuadorean emergency officials recovered several wounded members of the FARC, transporting them to hospitals in Quito.

Faced with one of Latin America’s worst diplomatic crises in recent years, the Organization of American States said it would convene a meeting in Washington on Tuesday to try to prevent an escalation of the dispute between Colombia, a staunch Bush administration ally, and the leftist governments of Ecuador and Venezuela.
Even as Colombia’s government offered details on the FARC’s relations with Venezuela and Ecuador, Colombian officials said Monday that they would not send more troops to the borders with the two countries in response to the mobilizations ordered by Mr. Chávez and Mr. Correa.

Because of the FARC’s resilient history at the heart of Colombia’s war, it has had contact with insurgencies and governments throughout Latin America and beyond, including the United States, which classifies the FARC and other armed groups in Colombia as terrorists.

For instance, in 1998 a Clinton administration official, Philip T. Chicola, then the State Department’s director of Andean affairs, had a clandestine meeting with Mr. Reyes in Costa Rica in an effort to establish a way of communicating with the FARC during times of crisis.

The meeting was described in a diplomatic cable written by Mr. Chicola in January 1999 and declassified in 2004. Also present at the meeting was Mr. Reyes’s wife, Olga Marín, who is believed to be the daughter of the FARC’s top commander, Manuel Marulanda, and also reported to be present, and possibly wounded, in the raid on the jungle camp on Saturday.

The Bush administration on Monday reiterated its support for Colombia’s struggle against the FARC and cocaine trafficking, but called for a negotiated solution to the crisis.

“This, for us, is an issue between the governments of Colombia and Ecuador,” said Tom H. Casey, deputy spokesman at the State Department, in a briefing to reporters on Monday in Washington. “We believe it’s appropriate for them to work that out through diplomatic discussion.”

Still, what began over the weekend as an operation by Colombian forces in Ecuadorean territory has evolved into a wider regional matter. “Our view of this issue right now is that there is no doubt that there is a territorial violation and we condemn it,” said Celso Amorim, Brazil’s foreign minister, speaking to reporters in Brasília. “It raises insecurity problems in all countries of the region, mostly in the smaller ones.”

And amid the Colombian accusations, Mr. Chávez remains at the center of the increasing tension, with his political opponents here criticizing his decision to mobilize troops and fighter jets in a show of Venezuelan force.

“If anyone has to protest, it is Ecuador’s government, as the military incident took place in Ecuadorean territory, not ours,” Teodoro Petkoff, the publisher of the newspaper Tal Cual, said in an editorial. “Venezuela has nothing to complain about.”

Jenny Carolina González contributed reporting from Bogotá, Colombia, and Uta Harnischfeger from Zurich.

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Saber-Rattling in South America

Saber-Rattling in South America
By Jens Glüsing in Rio de Janeiro


The governments of Ecuador and Venezuela have sent troops to their borders with Colombia. It's an angry response to a Colombian attack on FARC rebels in Ecuador on Saturday. Is war about to break out in South America?
AP

Ecuadorean soldiers heading for the border with Colombia on Monday.
Raúl Reyes, the bearded No. 2 of the Revolutionary Forces of Colombia, or FARC, was always a welcome guest in the Ecuadorian capital of Quito. He visited the city repeatedly to meet relatives and to recover from combat missions in his home country, Colombia.

He had especially close contact with the interior minister of Ecuador, Gustavo Larrea. "Larrea is interested in establishing official relations with FARC on behalf of President Rafael Correa," Reyes wrote in a letter to the "Secretariat," the top decision-making body of the guerrilla group.

That letter was reportedly stored on Reyes' laptop, which Colombian soldiers seized over the weekend after an air strike and ground assault on a FARC base camp in Ecuador. The operation killed 17 FARC fighters, including Reyes. The Colombian government celebrated the attack, which had doubtless been prepared with the help of American surveillance technology, as the "most severe blow against FARC since its inception."

It's true that Reyes' death is a major blow against FARC. The stocky rebel boss -- who wore a Rolex watch -- was the group's second most important leader, after their legendary commander Manuel Marulanda. He was also one of the most radical. He defended the kidnapping of politicians and other civilians as part of the group's combat strategy. He was also the main contact for journalists and the French government, which is desperately trying to secure the release of French-Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt (more...).

Reyes forged an international alliance which participated in FARC's high-publicity release of eight hostages in recent months. The group's most important partner was Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who ordered a minute of silence on television to honor Reyes. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, a former leftist guerrilla himself, also outed himself as a "comrade" of the Colombian rebel leader on Sunday.

And now Rafael Correa, the populist left-wing president of Ecuador, can apparently also be counted among FARC's friends, if the data on Reyes' laptop are to be believed -- something Interior Minister Larrea denies.

Chávez Threatening War

Correa was quick to reject Colombia's apology for the military strike on its territory, and sent troops to the border with Colombia. He had evidently coordinated his response with his alter ego Chávez, who threatened to declare war on Colombia if it conducted a similar strike on Venezuelan soil. On his TV program "Aló Presidente," Chavez said he was dispatching tank units to the border and putting the air force on alert.

Colombia's strike was indeed a clear breach of Ecuador's sovereignty. The FARC camp was located in the Ecuadorian jungle, 1.8 kilometers (1.1 miles) from the border with Colombia. But Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has been warning Quito for years that FARC operates on Ecuadorian territory. The rebels have well-established camps in Ecuador, they smuggle large quantities of cocaine out of Colombia via Ecuador, and they probably held several of their hostages in Ecuador, at least for a time. That is according to former senator Luis Eladio Pérez, who was released by FARC last week. Simon Trinidad, one of FARC's most important commanders, was arrested in 2004 in Quito on the Boulevard Amazonas, the Ecuadorian capital's main shopping street.

If the information on Reyes' laptop is true, the guerrillas have such good contacts with Ecuador's government that they even had the audacity to ask Correa for a favor: they wanted him to withdraw soldiers and police who didn't like FARC from the border region and replace them with troops who were more favorably disposed to the guerrillas.

Is South America on the brink of war? Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez has announced that he will back his friend Correa "unconditionally." A little war might help Chávez distract his people from domestic problems. His opinion poll ratings have fallen to an all-time low. The poor used to back him unquestioningly, but many of them now blame him for supply shortages in this oil-rich economy. The people of Venezuela have to stand in line for milk, meat, eggs and other staple foods -- a result of Chávez' economic policy errors.

Analysts say many military commanders may refuse to obey Chávez if he actually declares war. The armed forces are unhappy with the gradual increase in political influence in their ranks. Venezuela is traditionally peaceful and has never waged a war against a neighbor. The country wouldn't stand much of a chance against battle-hardened Colombian troops, despite Venezuela's new Russian-made weapons and aircraft.

War Would Hurt Venezuela's Economy

Besides, Venezuela and Colombia depend on each other economically. Venezuela gets most of its food from Colombia, and without Colombian immigrant laborers the oil-dependent economy would face collapse. Whenever anything works in this laid-back Caribbean nation, it's usually thanks to a hard-working Colombian.

Nevertheless, one can't rule out the chance Chávez might hurl himself into a military adventure. He's a soldier, has a military mindset, and would probably love to enter the history books as a martyr.

It wouldn't be the first war in Latin American history. In 1995 a border dispute between Peru and Ecuador led to skirmishes between those two countries, and memories of the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina remain fresh.

It's now up to the big regional powers Mexico, Argentina and Brazil to defuse the situation. Brazil's President Luis Ignácio "Lula" da Silva in particular must prove that he's a suitable peacemaker in times of crisis. On Sunday there was intense telephone contact between the governments of Argentina and Brazil as Lula and Argentinian President Cristina Kirchner discussed how to respond. Mexican President Felipe Calderón has also offered to mediate.

Reyes' death may end up speeding up the resolution of the hostage crisis, contrary to initial fears. Reyes was regarded as a hardliner in the FARC Secretariat. Colombian experts have blamed his intransigence for FARC's refusal to agree to a prisoner exchange. Reyes may now be succeeded by Commander Ivan Márquez, who is seen as more ready to make concessions.

FARC released a communiqué on Sunday aimed at allaying the fears of hostages' relatives. Reyes' death won't affect the hostage negotiations, the statement said.

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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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