CARACAS, Venezuela — In the four days since Colombian forces crossed into Ecuador and killed a guerrilla leader taking refuge there, tensions between Colombia — Washington’s top regional ally — and its leftist neighbors have erupted, highlighting the fact that Colombia and its policies are increasingly viewed here as American proxies.
President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela called Colombia the “Israel of Latin America” saying both countries bombed and invaded neighbors by invoking “a supposed right to defense” that he said was ordered by the United States. He has sent troops to the border and expelled Colombia’s ambassador. His agriculture minister said Tuesday that the frontier with Colombia would be closed to stop commerce.
In turn, Colombia said it would file charges against Mr. Chávez with the International Criminal Court, accusing him of assisting Colombia’s largest rebel group.
Meanwhile, President Bush fiercely defended Colombia, which receives $600 million a year in American aid to fight the leftist rebels and drug trafficking. He used the diplomatic crisis to push Congress to approve a Colombia trade deal that has languished for more than a year because of concerns among senior Democrats over human rights abuses there.
Mr. Bush, who telephoned Colombia’s president, Álvaro Uribe, on Tuesday morning, told reporters at the White House, “I told the president that America fully supports Colombia’s democracy, and that we firmly oppose any acts of aggression that could destabilize the region.”
Employing a new strategy to portray the trade agreement with Colombia as an issue of national security, Mr. Bush used the occasion to call on Congress to ratify the deal as a way of countering leaders like Mr. Chávez who had emerged as scourges of American policies in the region.
“If we fail to approve this agreement, we will let down our close ally, we will damage our credibility in the region and we will embolden the demagogues in our hemisphere,” Mr. Bush said.
Although Colombia violated the sovereignty of Ecuador, not Venezuela, in its raid, Mr. Chávez, an ally of Ecuador, has taken the lead in accusing Colombia of being an American stooge. That has been a favorite theme of his, especially since November, when Colombia abruptly withdrew support for Mr. Chávez’s mediation with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
Adding to the tensions on Tuesday, Colombia’s vice president, Francisco Santos, said Colombian forces had found evidence that the FARC had been seeking the ingredients to make a radioactive dirty bomb.
Material found on a laptop computer recovered in the raid into Ecuador 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 at a United Nations disarmament meeting in Geneva, in a statement that was posted in Spanish on the 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 with whom the rebels were negotiating.
Mr. Santos made his claim based on information provided Monday in Bogotá by Colombia’s national police chief about the FARC’s negotiations for 110 pounds of uranium, obtained from the laptop computer of Raúl Reyes, the senior FARC commander killed Saturday in Ecuador.
Colombia’s government also said this week that it had obtained information on the computer showing that Mr. Chávez was channeling $300 million to the FARC. The information is the basis for its plan to file charges against Mr. Chávez in the International Criminal Court, Mr. Uribe said Tuesday in Bogotá.
The tensions produced a heated diplomatic exchange during an emergency meeting convened Tuesday by the Organization of American States in Washington, during which several countries denounced Colombia’s actions as a violation of Ecuadorean sovereignty.
Foreign Minister María Isabel Salvador of Ecuador demanded that the O.A.S. formally condemn the actions by Colombia, dispatch a fact-finding mission to investigate the events on its border, and call a meeting of regional foreign ministers to consider further action.
“Ecuador rejects any effort by Colombia to avoid responsibility for violating its sovereignty, which is a right that secures the peaceful coexistence of all nations,” Ms. Salvador said. “Diplomatic apologies are not enough.”
An apology was not all she got. Ambassador Camilo Ospina of Colombia strongly denied accusations that Colombian troops used military force on Ecuadorean territory, saying that aircraft fired into Ecuador from the Colombian side of the border.
He acknowledged that after the bombing, Colombian forces entered Ecuador to examine the FARC camp. And what they found, he said, was evidence that Ecuador had been harboring members of the FARC.
Mr. Ospina said that, in addition to the alleged payment by Mr. Chavez, the information found on the laptops that Colombian troops seized indicated that President Rafael Correa’s government had met several times with the FARC and allowed them to set up permanent bases in Ecuadorean territory. He said Colombia would seek charges against President Chávez at the International Criminal Court.
“There is not the least doubt that the governments of Venezuela and Ecuador have been negotiating with terrorists,” Mr. Ospina said. “Allowing terrorist groups to keep camps on their territory border for the planning and execution of terrorist acts is a crime and a clear violation of international treaties.” Television in Venezuela also broadcast images of tank battalions heading to the border, following a threat by Mr. Chávez on Sunday that Colombia would be inviting war if it carried out an incursion in Venezuela similar to the one on Saturday in a remote Amazonian province of Ecuador that killed 21 guerrillas.
Mr. Chávez’s threat, which included a taunt that Venezuela would use its Russian-made Sukhoi fighter jets to attack Colombia, has been interpreted here as a sign that Mr. Chávez stands ready to defend the FARC, a group classified as terrorists in the United States and Europe that is reported to operate without hindrance along Venezuela’s porous 1,300-mile border with Colombia.
Contrasting the FARC’s image in Colombia as a group that finances itself through cocaine trafficking and abductions and still plants land mines in rural areas, documentaries on state television here in Venezuela portray the FARC as an insurgency born out of efforts to combat Colombia’s moneyed elite.
On his Sunday television program, Mr. Chávez went further by calling for a minute of silence to mourn for Mr. Reyes, the fallen guerrilla leader whose real name was Luis Édgar Devia.
“Chávez is effectively supporting narcoterrorists who take refuge in Venezuela and Ecuador while saying a democratically elected leader of Colombia cannot fight back,” said Diego Arria, a former Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations who is a vocal critic of Mr. Chávez.
Still, Mr. Uribe, Colombia’s president, is struggling to convince other countries in the region of Colombia’s need to carry out the foray into Ecuador. Even if they might agree with Mr. Uribe in private, leaders are hesitant to publicly back him, given sensitivities over territorial sovereignty.
“Uribe hasn’t developed much of a foreign policy strategy beyond depending on the United States,” said Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at Inter-American Dialogue, a research group in Washington. “This puts him into a bit of a bind.”
Indeed, few places can profess such longstanding support for the United States as Colombia, which sent battalions to fight alongside American troops in the Korean War.
Despite remaining the largest supplier of cocaine to the United States, Colombia has emerged as a top ally of the Bush administration, with hundreds of American military advisers welcomed there to assist Colombian security forces in counterinsurgency and antinarcotics operations.
But just as Mr. Uribe may be suffering because of his close ties to the United States, he may also be fortunate to have Mr. Chávez as his main adversary. Other countries in the region are increasingly uncomfortable with Mr. Chávez’s belligerence as concern emerges over Venezuela’s intervention in a matter involving Colombia and Ecuador.
“South America is not prepared for conflicts, and we do not want conflicts,” Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, told reporters in Brazil on Tuesday, explaining that his government would try to negotiate a solution to the dispute along with other countries.
*By SIMON ROMERO (NYT)
Jenny Carolina González contributed reporting from Bogotá, Colombia, Uta Harnischfeger from Zurich and Ginger Thompson from Washington.
Regional Bloc Criticizes Colombia Raid in Ecuador
The Organization of American States approved a resolution on Wednesday declaring the Colombian military raid into Ecuador a violation of sovereignty, in a move aimed at easing a diplomatic crisis in the Andes involving Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela.
The resolution was approved in Washington after talks in which the United States was the hemisphere’s only nation explicitly supporting Colombia, a top Bush administration ally. The measure stopped short of condemning Colombia for the raid, which took place on Saturday and killed 24 guerrillas, including a senior commander of the rebel group FARC in Colombia.
“We consider this agreement a triumph for the concept that every nation’s territory cannot be violated whatever the reason,” María Isabel Salvador, Ecuador’s foreign minister, said in a telephone interview from Washington. “Ecuador is a peaceful country that had been dragged into this unfortunate situation.”
While the resolution allows both Colombia and Ecuador to save face and begin to repair relations strained this week, it fails to address some of the broader implications of Colombia’s raid. Foremost among these is the emphatic support for Colombia’s guerrillas expressed by President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.
Mr. Chávez mobilized his armed forces in response to the raid, pledging war with Colombia if it tried a similar foray into Venezuelan territory, where both the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and a smaller Colombian group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, operate along the border.
Venezuela’s troop movements continued on Wednesday, with Defense Minister Gustavo Rangel saying that 10 tank battalions were being sent to the border, along with mobilizations of the air force and navy. General Rangel said the maneuvers were aimed at containing the reach of the United States.
“It is not against the people of Colombia, but rather the expansionist designs of the empire,” General Rangel said, referring to the United States, at a news conference here.
Colombia reiterated on Wednesday that it did not plan to send troops to its border in a response to Venezuela’s action. “The precise instructions to our armed forces are not to move one single soldier toward the border,” said Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s defense minister.
Venezuela’s mobilization drew a rebuke from the Bush administration, which has portrayed Colombia as an ally in need of a trade deal delayed because of concerns over killings of Colombian trade union officials.
“We do think it’s curious that a country such as Venezuela would be raising the specter of military action against a country who was defending itself against terrorism,” said Dana Perino, the White House spokeswoman. “I think that says a lot about Venezuela.”
Mr. Chávez chafes at such portrayals of Venezuelan policy from Washington, positioning the dispute as a struggle between Ecuador and Venezuela, two like-minded governments, and Colombia, the largest recipient of American military aid in Latin America and one of the largest outside the Middle East.
“It must be said: They, the empire and its lackeys, are war. We are peace. We are the path to peace,” Mr. Chávez said in comments on state television here.
Mr. Chávez added that he had been discussing the dispute with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France. France has been relying on Mr. Chávez’s mediation to try to free Ingrid Betancourt, a captive of the FARC with dual French and Colombian citizenship who was once a candidate for Colombia’s presidency.
Ecuador also said it was sending 3,200 troops to its border after Colombia’s raid early Saturday. While President Rafael Correa did not go as far as Mr. Chávez in showing support for the FARC, senior officials in his government said there was little they could do to prevent the Colombian guerrillas from returning to the area.
Mr. Correa arrived here Wednesday night to meet with Mr. Chávez after visits with the leaders of Peru and Brazil in an attempt to shore up support for Ecuador’s criticism of the raid.
Mark Schneider, a special adviser on Latin America at the International Crisis Group, a research organization in Brussels, said, “Failing to get Venezuela and Ecuador on board regarding the dangers posed by the FARC, which engages in drug trafficking, kidnapping and terrorist violence, is a failure of policy of both Colombia and the U.S.”
Colombia is emerging from the dispute with a major tactical victory against the FARC, having killed Raúl Reyes, a commander believed to be the group’s second in command, after Manuel Marulanda, the 77-year-old chief of the guerrillas.
Colombian authorities said Wednesday that FARC rebels, in a possible reprisal attack, had bombed an oil pipeline in Putumayo Province, in Colombia’s southwest, Reuters reported. Such pipeline bombings are fairly common in Colombia, but this was the first since the current crisis began.
Distaste persists around the region for the way Colombia carried out the operation without the Ecuadorean government’s knowledge and moving about a mile into Ecuador’s territory.
The resolution approved Wednesday requires José Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organization of American States, to form a panel to go to Sucumbios Province in Ecuador and across the border to Putumayo Province to investigate the raid and determine ways of repairing ties between the countries.
Unmentioned in the resolution, however, was the intensifying ill will between Colombia and Venezuela, especially after Mr. Chávez’s expulsion of Colombia’s ambassador and other diplomatic staff members here this week.
At stake is the annual $5 billion in trade between Colombia and Venezuela, dwarfing the $2 billion in trade between Colombia and Ecuador, as commerce on the border dwindled Wednesday to bare necessities like food.
“These past days showed that a radicalization of the positions by the parties involved in the conflict are not in the interest of peace,” said Aldo Civico, director of the Center for International Conflict Resolution at Columbia University. “On the contrary, they destabilize the region.”
*By SIMON ROMERO (NYT)
Jenny Carolina González contributed reporting from Bogotá, Colombia; Uta Harnischfeger from Zurich; and Ginger Thompson from Washington.