CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez on Sunday ordered tanks and thousands of troops to the border with Colombia, accusing it of pushing South America to the brink of war by killing a top rebel leader on Ecuadorean soil.
Denouncing Colombia’s slaying of rebel commander Raul Reyes and 16 other Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrillas in a cross-border raid into Ecuador Saturday, Chavez said Venezuela will respond militarily if Colombia violates its border. He ordered Venezuela’s embassy in Bogota closed.
“We don’t want war, but we aren’t going to permit the U.S. empire, which is the master (of Colombia) … to come divide us,” Chavez said during his weekly TV and radio program.
Chavez called Colombian President Alvaro Uribe “a criminal” and branded his government a “terrorist state,” likening it to Israel for its U.S.-backed attacks on militants.
Ecuador withdrew its ambassador from Bogota, ordered Colombia’s top diplomat expelled and ordered mobilization of troops to the border with Colombia.
Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, said Colombia deliberately carried out the strike beyond its borders. “There is no justification,” Correa said Sunday night, snubbing an earlier announcement from Colombia that it would apologize for the incursion.
Colombia said FARC “terrorists” including Reyes “have had the custom of killing in Colombia and taking refuge in the territory of neighboring countries.”
Correa said the rebels were “bombed and massacred as they slept, using precision technology.” He said Colombia violated Ecuador’s airspace when it bombed the rebel camp, which the Colombian military said was located 1.1 miles from the border.
Ecuadorean soldiers recovered the bodies of 15 rebels in their camp. Soldiers stood guard at the site, saying they also found three wounded women, who were evacuated by helicopter.
Ecuadorean officials found that there were two bomb attacks on the camp early Saturday, Lt. Col. Jose Nunez told reporters in the remote village of Angostura, where the bodies were found.
Chavez called the raid “cowardly murder, all of it coldly calculated. This could be the start of a war in South America.”