The Colombian government said Sunday the military operation that resulted in the death of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, international spokesman Raul Reyes and 16 other guerrillas inside Ecuador did not constitute a violation of the neighboring country's sovereignty. ( EFE )
"We can say that Colombia did not violate the sovereignty, but instead acted under the principle of legitimate defense," the Foreign Ministry said in response to Ecuador's statements that the operation constituted an "aggression."
"The terrorists, among them Raul Reyes, have had the habit of murdering in Colombia and invading the territory of neighboring countries to find refuge," the Foreign Ministry said in a brief statement.
The FARC said in a statement Sunday that Reyes's death would not affect the search for a humanitarian agreement for the release of the hostages it was holding.
"We call for revolutionary firmness, to not abandon the effort for a humanitarian exchange, to continue with our aim of peace and the construction of an effective democracy with social justice," the guerrilla group said in a statement posted on the Internet.
"That is the best tribute for all the comrades who have fallen in combat," the FARC said.
The guerrilla group is holding dozens of high-value hostages it deems "exchangeable" for as many as 500 jailed rebels.
Among the "exchangeables" are three U.S. military contractors and former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.
Fabrice Delloye, Betancourt's ex-husband, welcomed the FARC's statement on Sunday, noting that the guerrilla group continued working for "an opening toward dialogue."
President Alvaro Uribe congratulated the armed forces Saturday night for the successful operation that killed Reyes, who was the FARC's spokesman and second-in-command.
"I congratulate Colombia's soldiers and police for this operation," Uribe said during an appearance in Rionegro, near the northwestern city of Medellin.
"As constitutional president of the nation, I assume full responsibility for all that happened," Uribe said, adding that he wanted to thank "(Ecuadorian) President Rafael Correa, the armed forces and police, and the people of the brother country for their understanding of the situation Colombia is living through" in trying to defeat the rebels.
Reyes and at least 16 other FARC rebels were killed early Saturday in a Colombian military operation inside Ecuador.
Correa, for his part, condemned "the aggression" against Ecuador by Colombia in the military operation that killed Reyes and recalled Quito's ambassador from Bogota.
The Ecuadorian leader said he believed Uribe lied to him in a telephone call Saturday morning informing him of the operation, which was "the worst aggression suffered by Ecuador at the hands of Colombia."
Correa said Uribe told him about Reyes's death and the operation, claiming that Colombian troops had responded to fire from the FARC, which had entered Ecuadorian territory to escape the fighting.
"This is serious," Correa said, adding that the incursion would be "understandale" if it had been in "hot pursuit."
The Ecuadorian president, however, said reports from Ecuadorian military patrols indicated that the scene of the fighting was at least two kilometers (1.2 miles) inside Ecuador and there had been a "massacre."
"To the surprise of the Ecuadorian government, (Ecuadorian troops) have found the bodies of 15 guerrillas, (and) two wounded female guerrillas in an improvised camp," Correa said, adding that the dead "were in their underwear, that is, there was no hot pursuit," Correa said.
"They were bombed and massacred while sleeping, using pinpoint technology, which located them at night, in the jungle, surely with the assistance of foreign powers," the Ecuadorian president said.
Correa cancelled a trip planned for Monday to Cuba so he can remain in Quito to manage the diplomatic crisis with Colombia.
Ecuador's armed forces have been placed on a state of alert along the border with Colombia and "will repel any foreign aggression," Defense Minister Wellington Sandoval said.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, for his part, warned Colombia Saturday that any incursion into his country would be "cause for war."
"Think it over carefully, President Uribe, don't even think about doing that here because it would be something extremely serious and would be 'causa belli': cause for war, a military incursion into Venezuela. There is no excuse," for such an action, Chavez said during a Cabinet meeting carried by state-owned VTV television.
Chavez, who has been working for months to secure the release of the hostages being held by the FARC, said Colombia "has opted for the path of war" in obeying the supposed orders of the United States.
The Venezuelan leader asked whether Colombia "is going to become the Israel of Latin America."
" Israel, which is another instrument of imperialism, carries out incursions into Lebanon, incursions almost daily into the Gaza Strip, kills, kidnaps, bombs, destroys, and the world is silent. Is it that Colombia is going to become the Israel of Latin America?" Chavez asked.
"We celebrate life and will always fight for life," Chavez said.
Chavez went further on his weekly radio and television show Sunday, ordering the "closing" of the Venezuelan Embassy in Colombia and the mobilization of "10 battalions" on the border.
The Venezuelan leader ripped Colombia's government for the "cowardly murder" of Reyes, accusing Uribe of being a "criminal, mobster, paramilitary," and of leading a "narcogovernment."
Chavez offered a minute of silence for Reyes at the request of one of the participants on his show.
Reyes was the first member of the FARC high command to die in action, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said.
Santos said in a communique that tips from informers verified by the intelligence services established that Reyes would be present Friday at a camp on the other side of the Putumayo River in Ecuadorian territory.
Air strikes staged around 12:25 a.m. Saturday by the Colombian air force opened the operation which also killed Julian Conrado, one of the guerrilla group's ideologues.
The operation was launched from Colombian territory, Santos said, adding that the bodies of Reyes and Conrado were transported to Colombia.
Reyes, who was about 60, was one of the seven members of the FARC's high command.
The FARC, Colombia's oldest and largest leftist guerrilla group, was founded in 1964 and today operates across a large swath of this Andean nation.
The rebel organization has an estimated 20,000 fighters and is still led by septuagenarian founder Manuel Marulanda, who is known as "Sureshot."
The Uribe administration has made fighting the FARC a top priority and has obtained billions in U.S. aid for counterinsurgency operations.
A succession of governments have battled Colombia's leftist insurgent groups since the mid-1960s.
In 1999, then-President Andres Pastrana allowed the creation of a Switzerland-sized "neutral" zone in the jungles of southern Colombia for peace talks with the FARC.
After several years of fitful and ultimately fruitless negotiations, Pastrana ordered the armed forces to retake the region in early 2002. But while the arrangement lasted, the FARC enjoyed free rein within the zone.
The FARC is on both the U.S. and EU lists of terrorist groups. Drug trafficking, extortion and kidnapping-for-ransom are the FARC's main means of financing its operations.