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Neighbors take aim at Colombia over incursion

Times Staff Writers

An increasingly isolated Colombia came under heavy criticism from its neighbors at an emergency Organization of American States session Tuesday for killing a top Colombian rebel leader in Ecuador last weekend.

A sense of crisis has enveloped the region as diplomats worked to avoid an armed conflict that could be devastating to a continent that has successfully transitioned into a mostly democratic region after the military juntas and “dirty wars” of the 1970s and 1980s.

Virtually all South American nations, though urging patience, have denounced the cross-border attack that killed Raul Reyes, the No. 2 commander of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe leveled allegations of his own, saying he would bring charges of state-sponsored terrorism against leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the International Criminal Court, citing evidence from the dead rebel’s laptop computer that Chavez gave $300 million and other resources to the FARC.

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Venezuela, meanwhile, made a move that could halt billions of dollars worth of trade. According to the mayor’s office in the Colombian border town of Cucuta, Chavez closed the frontier to cargo, although some trucks with perishable goods were allowed to cross.

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, before departing on a five-nation tour to rally support, said the killing of the rebel leader, whose real name was Luis Edgar Devia Silva, may have ruined chances for the release of 12 hostages held by his rebel group, including former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.

At the OAS, Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Maria Isabel Salvador said that Colombia’s apology for the incursion was insufficient and that the organization should send a special commission to investigate.

Though they may side with Uribe in his fight against the FARC, many Latin American nations have their own territorial disputes and see upholding sovereignty as in their interest.

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Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, a moderate socialist and a firm U.S. ally, was among the leaders who stressed the importance of borders and the need to respect them. A border war between Argentina and Chile was averted in the 1970s through papal intervention.

Peruvian President Alan Garcia, another firm U.S. partner and avowed enemy of Chavez, this week conditionally condemned the action by the Colombian military.

“If a military incursion would have happened in Peru, it would have been unacceptable,” he said.

One of Colombia’s few backers at the OAS meeting was acting U.S. representative J. Robert Manzanares, who said the Colombian troops ordered into Ecuador had a right to “pursue this terrorist menace.”

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President Bush also weighed in. Before the session began, he read a statement to reporters in which he touted a proposed free-trade agreement with Colombia, saying it would counter “those seeking to undermine democracy.”

Venezuela and Ecuador earlier sent troops to their borders with Colombia, recalled their ambassadors and expelled Colombia’s. The government in Bogota has so far refused to respond in kind.

But Chavez faced mounting criticism at home for involving Venezuela in a tiff that many Venezuelans see as none of his business. A former defense minister, retired Gen. Raul Baduel, told reporters in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, that deploying troops to the Colombian border was “confused.”

“This is a desperate attempt by President Chavez to use the military for political and personal ends, making them participants in an action whose consequences could be disastrous,” said Baduel, a former Chavez confidant turned critic.

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Tensions have been building since Colombia revealed Saturday morning that it killed Reyes and 16 other guerrillas in an operation Uribe said started in Colombia and spilled over into Ecuador.

Correa said Uribe lied to him in justifying the incursion as a matter of hot pursuit. Chavez, meanwhile, described Colombia as the region’s militaristic “new Israel” and threatened war if troops entered Venezuela.

Colombian OAS representative Camilo Ospina repeated his country’s earlier apology to Ecuador. But he quickly went on the offensive, charging Ecuador and Venezuela with openly harboring and supporting the FARC. He said the assertion was bolstered by contents of the rebels’ laptop computers, which among other things indicated that Reyes had met with Ecuadorean Interior Minister Gustavo Larrea.

“It was not an area of transit but a permanent camp” that Colombia attacked, Ospina said. He mocked Larrea’s explanation that his meetings with Reyes had a “humanitarian purpose.” Larrea should have turned Reyes over to Interpol, Ospina said.

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A U.S. intelligence official in Washington said he could not confirm reports that American spies had tipped off the Colombian authorities that Reyes was using a satellite telephone that allowed him to be tracked.

The official acknowledged, however, that U.S. officials have such capabilities and that they share information with allies such as Colombia.

U.S. officials played down the possibility that the developments could touch off a war in the Andes.

“People are pretty much focused on the diplomatic track, and I don’t think anyone expects it will lead to anything else,” said a senior State Department official.

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chris.kraul@latimes.com

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Kraul reported from Bogota and McDonnell from Buenos Aires. Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington and special correspondent Mery Mogollon in Caracas contributed to this report.

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