Chavez says Venezuela doesn't seek war

Other News Materials 6 March 2008 01:46 (UTC +04:00)

President Hugo Chavez charged Wednesday that Colombia and its allies in Washington are responsible for the intensifying crisis in this region - and said perpetual conflict with the United States is inevitable.

"It must be said: They, the empire and its lackeys, are war. We are peace. We are the path to peace," Chavez said in a televised speech, his first since Colombia alleged that documents found in a leftist rebel's computer show the Venezuelan leader has been supporting Colombian guerrillas for years. ( AP )

Chavez, who ordered 10 battalions of troops to reinforce Venezuela's border with Colombia after Colombian troops entered Ecuador on Saturday to attack a rebel hideout, spoke as diplomats struggled to defuse the crisis.

In Washington, the Organization of American States approved a compromise resolution drafted jointly by Ecuador and Colombia that declared the raid a violation of Ecuador's sovereignty. It also called for OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza to lead a delegation to both countries in hopes of helping them calm tensions.

The United States was the only nation in the OAS to offer Colombia unqualified support. Many other countries worried openly about the attack inside Ecuador, despite Colombia's complaints that Venezuela and Ecuador have both provided refuge to leftist Colombian guerrillas.

Chavez, a leftist who has long called the conservative Colombian President Alvaro Uribe a U.S. stooge, has warned Colombia that Venezuela would respond militarily to any violation of its border. Venezuela's justice minister ramped up the threat Tuesday by declaring that war "has already begun."

Chavez said Wednesday that Colombia's "warlike government" follows U.S. dictates and that conflict of some sort with the U.S. cannot be avoided.

"While we want freedom, they want to keep us in chains. We want a fatherland; they want a colony. How can a confrontation be avoided? It's inevitable," he said.

Ecuador says it sent 3,200 soldiers to its own border with Colombia on Monday.

Uribe has said he will not allow Colombia to be drawn into war, although the attack on the camp inside Ecuador reflected the frustration of his government over the ability of rebels to take refuge across poorly patrolled borders.

Colombia's commando raid gave Colombian officials an intelligence bonanza from seized laptops belonging to the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Among them was the computer of rebel leader Raul Reyes, who was among the two dozen guerrillas killed.

Colombia released reams of documents it said were found on Reyes' computer that suggest Chavez has supported the Colombian guerrillas for years.

In his speech, Chavez did not refer to Colombian allegations that 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.

Colombian officials also have accused the rebels of trying to acquire radioactive material that could be used in a "dirty bomb." The documents shared with reporters don't support that allegation, indicating instead that the rebels discussed the possibility of buying uranium to resell at a profit.

Documents also 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 didn'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 that FARC fighters would avoid operations inside Ecuador, adding that the presence of the rebel base shows "they did not fulfill the promise."

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa called Colombia's president a liar who "wanted war."

He warned that if the commando raid 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."

Speaking 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 the release of 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.

With troops moving to the frontiers, Venezuelan Agriculture Minister Elias Jaua said his country had closed its border with Colombia - which sees annual trade worth roughly $5 billion.

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 hoped the crisis didn't last long.

When the border is open, some 9,400 tons of merchandise cross between Colombia and Venezuela in both directions each day, 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.