Venezuela breaks ties with US-allied Colombia

Venezuela`s defense minister warned Colombia against provoking a conflict over allegations his country is sheltering guerrilla bases.

Caracas: Venezuela`s defense minister on Friday warned Colombia against provoking a conflict over allegations his country is sheltering guerrilla bases and said the military backs President Hugo Chavez`s decision to cut ties with the neighboring nation.

Defense Minister Carlos Mata read a statement on state television promising "a strong response" if foreign forces cross into Venezuelan territory.

President Hugo Chavez announced Thursday he was breaking diplomatic relations with Colombia, accusing the close US ally of fabricating evidence showing Colombian rebel bases inside Venezuela.

At a meeting of the Organization of American States in Washington, Colombian Ambassador Luis Alfonso Hoyos presented photos, videos, witness testimony and maps of what he said were rebel camps inside Venezuela and challenged Venezuelan officials to let independent observers visit them.

Neither Chavez nor his OAS ambassador directly responded to the Colombian`s repeated demand that Venezuela let people visit the alleged camps run by groups that the U.S. and European governments label terrorist organizations.

But Chavez suggested that Uribe could be attempting to provoke a war.

Chavez insisted Venezuela does everything possible to prevent members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the smaller National Liberation Army from crossing into Venezuelan territory.

In Washington, Hoyos said that roughly 1,500 rebels are hiding out in Venezuela and he displayed numerous aerial photographs of what he identified as rebel camps inside Venezuela. He also showed photos and video of rebel leaders he said were shot at the camps by guerrillas who recently surrendered to the government.

He said Colombia`s government has repeatedly asked Venezuela to help keep guerrillas from slipping over the 1,400-mile (2,300-kilometer) border that separates the two countries.

OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza told reporters after the four-hour session that his organization could not mount an inspection mission without Venezuela`s consent.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro announced that Chavez`s government had closed its embassy in Bogota and demanded that Colombia`s ambassador in Caracas leave the country within 72 hours.

Chavez`s envoy to the OAS, Roy Chaderton, said the photographs that Hoyos showed didn`t provide any solid evidence of a guerrilla presence in Venezuela.

Chavez suggested the photographs could be bogus, saying Uribe "is capable of anything."

The Venezuelan leader contended Uribe could seek to spur an armed conflict with Venezuela before he leaves office next month. Colombian President-elect Juan Manuel Santos, who was visiting Mexico, declined to comment.

"Uribe is even capable of setting up a fake camp in one of the jungles on the Venezuelan side to attack it, bomb it and bring about a war between Colombia and Venezuela," Chavez said.

The socialist leader has argued in the past that US officials are using Colombia to portray him as a supporter of terrorist groups to justify US military intervention in Venezuela.

Chavez, who appeared alongside Argentine football legend Diego Maradona on Thursday, said Washington is using its alliance with Colombia to try to undermine Venezuela`s efforts toward regional integration.

Laura Gil, a political analyst and columnist for the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, said she didn`t expect the conflict to last very long because Chavez appeared to direct his comments at Uribe while raising the possibility that relations could be restored under Santos.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed hope the two countries will work out their differences in a peaceful manner.

But Colombia said it would also file a complaint with the International Criminal Court against members of Venezuela`s government who are allegedly collaborating with Colombian guerrilla groups and providing refuge to terrorists.

The charges would fall under war crimes and crimes against humanity, Chief Prosecutor Guillermo Mendoza told reporters after a meeting with Uribe and Cabinet members.

These are crimes, he said, "committed by armed groups that have attacked our citizens, carried out kidnappings, attacked our armed forces and, according to our hypothesis, have taken refuge in Venezuela." He did not say when the complaint would be filed.

Bureau Report

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