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Tension mounts in South America

RECIFE, Brazil – While troops in Ecuador and Venezuela moved toward their borders with Colombia, the leaders of those three countries moved further from a negotiated solution Tuesday. One ratcheted up his rhetoric, another cut trade ties, and the third warned of a broader regional conflict if the worsening diplomatic dispute becomes a military confrontation.

Ecuador’s Rafael Correa visited Peru to begin a tour soliciting Latin American backing for sanctions against Colombia after its military crossed into Ecuador on Saturday to attack guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, who use the frontier region as a sanctuary. Venezuela, which jumped into the dispute in support of Ecuador, announced that it would halt cross-border trade with Colombia.

“If this act goes unpunished, the whole region will be in danger, because the next victim could be Peru, it could be Brazil, it could be Venezuela, Bolivia or any of our countries,” Correa said in televised comments in Lima. “Colombia’s attitude is creating a danger for the entire region and setting intolerable precedents.”

But Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe announced that he will ask the International Criminal Court to bring genocide charges against Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, whom he has accused of sympathizing with the rebel group.

Colombian officials contend that computer documents recovered in Saturday’s cross-border raid revealed that Chavez had given more than $300 million to the FARC, the Marxist insurgency that has battled the Colombian government for more than 40 years.

Correa and Chavez are vocal critics of the regional influence of the United States, which has provided military assistance and billions of dollars in funding for Colombia’s fight against drug-trafficking and guerrilla groups that profit from the narcotics trade.

President Bush said Tuesday that he spoke with Uribe to express his support.

“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,” Bush said at the White House. “I told him that America will continue to stand with Colombia as it confronts violence and terror and fights drug traffickers.”

Though the initial dispute did not involve Venezuela, Chavez’s involvement surprised no one in the region. A former army lieutenant colonel who tried unsuccessfully to topple the Venezuelan government in 1992, Chavez has infuriated Uribe by publicly praising FARC and its members as “revolutionaries.”

“Certainly one of the points of greatest discord between Venezuela and Colombia has been the overt support of Chavez for FARC, which resulted in a worsening of diplomatic relations even before March 1,” said Peter DeShazo, a former U.S. diplomat in Latin America and currently director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Generally, Chavez’s view on FARC has been largely benign in the face of a Colombian government that has dedicated itself to encountering the FARC and the other illegal armed groups.”

In recent months, Chavez has tried to mediate swaps of prisoners between FARC and the government of Colombia. FARC has released six hostages to Venezuelan authorities, and Chavez has asked other governments to remove the group from their lists of terrorist organizations.

Among the hostages held by FARC are three U.S. military contractors and former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who also has French citizenship. Both France and Ecuador had been communicating with Raul Reyes, a senior FARC commander killed in Saturday’s raid, according to Colombian officials.

FARC released a statement Tuesday saying that Reyes was killed while trying to arrange – through Chavez – a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy to discuss the possible release of Betancourt, who is said to be ill. Correa contended during his televised address that Colombia’s attack disrupted late-stage discussions to release 12 hostages.

During an emergency meeting of the Organization of American States in Washington aimed at negotiating a peaceful solution to the crisis, Colombian officials described FARC as a “mafia” group. But they also reiterated the country’s apologies to Ecuador for the incursion into its territory.

“The government of Colombia has offered public apologies to the government of Ecuador, and we do so again today,” Camilo Ospina, the Colombian ambassador to the OAS, said during the televised meeting.


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