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Conflict grows between Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador
Ecuador Colombia DO 5607419
An Ecuadorean soldier guards the international bridge over the San Miguel river, on the Ecuadorean northern border with Colombia, Tuesday, March 4, 2008. Ecuador broke off diplomatic ties with Colombia on Monday following a military strike against leftist rebels in Ecuadorean territory. - photo by Associated Press
    CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez said Wednesday that ‘‘we want peace,’’ but that Colombia and its allies in Washington represent war — and that perpetual conflict with the United States is inevitable.
    ‘‘It must be said: They, the empire and its lackeys, are war,’’ Chavez said in a televised speech, his first since Colombia alleged that documents seized from a leftist rebel’s computer prove the Venezuelan leader has been supporting the guerrillas for years.
    ‘‘We are the path to peace,’’ said Chavez, who ordered 10 battalions of troops to reinforce the border after Colombia entered Ecuadorean territory to attack a leftist rebel hideout.
    But Chavez said that as long as Colombian President Alvaro does what Washington tells him, conflict is inevitable. ‘‘Venezuela will never again be a U.S. colony,’’ he said to applause from a teachers’ group.
    Chavez spoke as diplomats from many countries struggled to defuse the crisis sparked by the Colombian attack.
    Ecuador rejected a Colombian apology for the cross-border strike as insufficient before an emergency meeting of the Organization of American States, where the United States was the only country to offer Colombia unqualified support.
    Many other countries worried openly about the violation to Ecuador’s sovereignty, despite complaints that Venezuela and Ecuador have long provided refuge to leftist Colombian guerrillas.
    Chavez has warned Colombia that Venezuela would respond militarily to any violation of its border, and Venezuela’s justice minister ramped up the threat Tuesday by declaring that war ‘‘has already begun.’’
    The military strike on Ecuadorean soil, which killed two dozen rebels, gave Colombian commandos an intelligence bonanza in the form of laptops they seized, including the computer of rebel leader Raul Reyes.
    Documents on the machine indicated Reyes had been secretly negotiating with representatives of France, Venezuela, Ecuador, the U.S. and other countries trying to free rebel-held hostages including French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three American defense contractors.
    Those representatives included Ecuador’s Interior Minister, Gustavo Larrea, who told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he doesn’t rule out the possibility the rebels still might release Betancourt.
    ‘‘We think an adequate response, in this critical moment for the Andean region, is that they free the hostages,’’ he said.
    Larrea also said Reyes had promised the FARC would avoid operations in Ecuador, adding that the presence of the base raided by Colombia shows ‘‘they did not fulfill the promise.’’
    Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, on a six-nation tour, called Colombian President Alvaro Uribe a liar who ‘‘wanted war,’’ and warned that if the attack goes unpunished, ‘‘the region will be in danger, because the next victim could be Peru, it could be Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, any one of our countries.’’
    The OAS sought to ease tensions by naming an commission led by Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza and Colombia released reams of documents it said it found on Reyes’ computer that suggest Chavez has supported the Colombian guerrillas for years.
    In his speech, Chavez did not refer to Colombian allegations he had given $300 million to the FARC and had conspired with them to embarrass the Colombian government.
    Venezuela earlier dismissed the allegations as lies.
    Colombia also accused the rebels of trying to make a radioactive dirty bomb, although the documents it shared with reporters don’t support that allegation, indicating instead that the rebels discussed the possibility of buying uranium to resell at a profit.
    In Brazil, Correa suggested late Tuesday that the Colombian raid was carried out to prevent the liberation of rebel-held hostages.
    He offered no proof, but said he agreed with speculation that Colombia targeted Reyes ‘‘to prevent a deal for the liberation of the hostages from going forward.’’
    The FARC freed four hostages last week, and Chavez had pledged to try to win freedom for others.
    The rebels said Tuesday that Reyes died ‘‘completing a mission to arrange, through President Chavez, a meeting with (French) President (Nicolas) Sarkozy’’ aimed at securing Betancourt’s release.
    Colombia’s attack on the camp inside Ecuador reflected its frustration over the ability of rebels to take refuge across poorly patrolled borders.
    But Uribe said he would not allow his nation to be drawn into war.
    Venezuela was sending about 9,000 soldiers — 10 battalions — to the border region as a ‘‘preventive’’ measure, retired Gen. Alberto Muller Rojas, a former top Chavez aide, told The Associated Press. Ecuador said it sent 3,200 troops to the border on Monday.
    Venezuela’s agriculture minister, Elias Jaua, said Venezuela had closed the border — which sees annual trade worth roughly $5 billion — to imports and exports.
    Despite the shrill rhetoric from the Andean governments, in several border towns there was little sign of tension apart from the turning away of trucks by Venezuelan border guards.
    Contenting themselves by calling Chavez ‘‘crazy’’, Colombian truckers lounged in the shade drinking beer and saying they hope the crisis won’t persist long.
    When the border is open, each day some 9,400 tons of merchandise cross between Colombia and Venezuela in both directions, said Jaime Sorzano, head of the cargo transport association. ‘‘In the past, we’ve had episodes, problems, but like this crisis no. It’s unprecedented,’’ he said.
    Associated Press writers Frank Bajak and Vivian Sequera in Bogota; Nestor Ikeda in Washington; Marco Sibaja in Brasilia, Brazil; Alan Clendenning in Sao Paulo, Brazil; Andrew Whalen in Lima, Peru; Christopher Toothaker in San Antonio, Venezuela, and Fabiola Sanchez, Jorge Rueda and Ian James in Caracas contributed to this report.

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