Colom­bia faces war threat from Venezuela

The Washington Times Weekly - - International Perspective - BY MARTIN AROSTEGUI

SANTA CRUZ, Bo­livia | Colom­bia has been build­ing up forces along its east­ern bor­der with Venezuela fol­low­ing weeks of provo­ca­tions by Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Hugo Chavez, who has threat­ened war against Colom­bia for a re­cent agree­ment that al­lows U.S. troops to use Colom­bia’s main mil­i­tary bases.

A new army divi­sion of 15,000 men has been formed to pro­tect the 94,000-square-mile fron­tier re­gion, ac­cord­ing to a com­mu­nique re­leased by Colom­bia’s de­fense min­istr y late last month.

“The new unit will in­crease the com­bat power to con­front the threat that orig­i­nates from nar­coter­ror­ist groups in the east of Colom­bia” the state­ment says.

The rebel Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Armed Forces of Colom­bia (FARC) and the smaller Na­tional Lib­er­a­tion Army (ELN) have been op­er­at­ing across the Venezue­lan bor­der for years and are fre­quent tar­gets of Colom­bian in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tions. An­a­lysts say they think Colom­bia’s mil­i­tary buildup has been spurred by re­cent in­ci­dents in which scores of Colom­bian na­tion­als have been killed in­side Venezuela.

Last month, three Colom­bians, in­clud­ing two women and an ex army sergeant, were fa­tally shot af­ter be­ing ar­rested by the Venezue­lan Na­tional Guard near a bor­der cross­ing on the Arauca River.

Venezue­lan of­fi­cials ac­cused them of be­ing “para­mil­i­tary in­fil­tra­tors.” The Colom­bian gov­ern­ment said they were work­ing for a pri­vate se­cu­rity com­pany.

Venezue­lan sol­diers also blew up two pedes­trian bridges con­nect­ing the coun­tries to pre­vent fur­ther in­fil­tra­tions by Colom­bian “spies,” ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial Venezue­lan state­ments.

Colom­bia’s re­sponse so far has been mea­sured.

“Th­ese are cal­cu­lated provo­ca­tions by Pres­i­dent Chavez,” said a se­nior U.S. gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial who spoke on con­di­tion that he not be named be­cause of the sen­si­tiv­ity of the topic. “Colom­bia hasn’t been tak­ing that bait.”

In a na­tional ra­dio in­ter­view Nov. 27, how­ever, Colom­bian De­fense Min­is­ter Gabriel Silva warned that his gov­ern­ment is pre­pared to act force­fully.

“Colom­bia would never at­tack Venezuela, but if at­tacked, we will re­spond to win,” he said.

Her­cules C-130 trans­port planes have been fly­ing large num­bers of Colom­bian troops, in­clud­ing elite U.S.-trained coun­terin­sur­gency bat­tal­ions, and large stores of am­mu­ni­tion and 105 How­itzer field guns to the fron­tier prov­inces of Arauca and Apure over re­cent days.

Naval units also have been de­ployed around the north­ern bor­der penin­sula of La Gua­jira, where fron­tier ob­ser­va­tion posts have been re­in­forced and sur veil­lance flights in­creased, ac­cord­ing to Colom­bian of­fi­cers who asked that their iden­ti­ties not be re­vealed be­cause of the sen­si­tive na­ture of the de­ploy­ments.

Ac­cord­ing to th­ese sources, two high-rank­ing of­fi­cers of the U.S. mil­i­tary mis­sion in Colom­bia re­cently in­spected the bor­der re­gion and at­tended the open­ing of the new 8th Army Divi­sion head­quar­ters in the south­ern bor­der prov­ince of Casanare.

U.S. mil­i­tary aid to Colom­bia is in­tended for anti-drug ef­forts, but Mr. Chavez fre­quently ac­cuses Wash­ing­ton of pre­par­ing to oust him from power.

Mean­while, Mr. Chavez has or- dered 15,000 Venezue­lan troops to Venezuela’s bor­der and warned that 500 new ar­mored ve­hi­cles, in­clud­ing T-72 tanks, are on their way from Rus­sia.

On Dec. 7, Mr. Chavez said Venezuela has re­ceived thou­sands of Rus­sian-made mis­siles and rocket launch­ers in prepa­ra­tion for a pos­si­ble armed con­flict with Colom­bia, As­so­ci­ated Press re­ported.

“I’m obliged to call on Venezue­lans to be ready for com- Colom­bia will unify Venezue­lans be­hind him.

On pa­per at least, Venezuela’s or­der of bat­tle ap­pears su­pe­rior to that of Colom­bia, which has no air power to match Venezuela’s 24 ad­vanced Sukhoi Su-30 fighter bombers, ac­quired from Rus­sia three years ago.

Mil­i­tary an­a­lysts say, how­ever, that in­ter­nal weak­nesses in Venezuela’s armed forces, in­clud­ing poor com­mu­ni­ca­tions and low troop morale, would make a con-

Last month, three Colom­bians, in­clud­ing two women and an ex-army sergeant, were fa­tally shot af­ter be­ing ar­rested by the Venezue­lan Na­tional Guard near a bor­der cross­ing on the Arauca River. Venezue­lan of­fi­cials ac­cused them of be­ing “para­mil­i­tary in­fil­tra­tors.” The Colom­bian gov­ern­ment said they were work­ing for a pri­vate se­cu­rity com­pany. Venezue­lan sol­diers also blew up two pedes­trian bridges con­nect­ing the coun­tries to pre­vent fur­ther in­fil­tra­tions by Colom­bian “spies,” ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial Venezue­lan state­ments.

bat,” Mr. Chavez said in speech last month when he also re­jected an of­fer from Brazil for an in­ter­na­tional force to po­lice the bor­der with Colom­bia.

“The prob­lem is not the fron­tier; it is the [U.S.] mil­i­tary bases,” Mr. Chavez said. “They can eaves­drop on our con­ver­sa­tions and launch un­manned air­craft.”

Faced with grow­ing do­mes­tic dis­sat­is­fac­tion over a sput­ter­ing econ­omy, Mr. Chavez ap­pears to hope that the ten­sions with ven­tional mil­i­tary of­fen­sive not vi­able.

“There is no stom­ach or sup­port for a war with Colom­bia,” said a se­nior U.S. gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial. He said Mr. Chavez’s bel­liger­ence is caused by “com­pelling do­mes­tic rea­sons.”

Op­po­nents of Mr. Chavez blame re­cent short­ages of elec­tric­ity and wa­ter in the Venezue­lan cap­i­tal, Cara­cas, and other main cities on ram­pant cor­rup­tion and mis­man­age­ment in his so­cial­ist regime.

Colom­bian in­ter­na­tional se­cu­rity ex­pert Col. Jose Maru­landa, said Mr. Chavez is seek­ing to whip up anti-Colom­bian and an­tiU.S. sen­ti­ment to gen­er­ate bor­der ten­sions that would jus­tify declar­ing mar­tial law.

“Chavez wants to pro­voke fron­tier in­ci­dents us­ing FARC, ELN and his Bo­li­var­ian Lib­er­a­tion Front,” a Venezuela-based mili­tia, Col. Maru­landa said. The Colom­bian said he fears that “skir­mishes be­tween ir­reg­u­lar forces could spill over into gen­er­al­ized vi­o­lence.”

Venezue­lan Gen. Al­berto Muller, a for­mer chief of staff and close ad­viser to Mr. Chavez, has said that Colom­bia’s own in­ter­nal con­flict pre­vents it from mo­bi­liz­ing suf­fi­cient forces to ef­fec­tively con­trol the fron­tier: “If Colom­bia has to move the army against Venezuela, Bo­gota would fall to the FARC.

“The United States, even with its mil­i­tary bases and all it has, can­not do it, ei­ther, be­cause it can­not stand an ad­di­tional war ef­fort to that which it is al­ready per­form­ing in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Gen. Muller said.

Mr. Maru­landa said the U.S. would need to pro­vide sup­port to Colom­bia in the event of a war with Venezuela. “U.S. satel­lite and radars would have to give us ad­vanced warn­ing of any move­ment by the Sukhois,” he said. “We don’t know if Pres­i­dent Obama is pre­pared to open an­other war front in Colom­bia.”

“Iso­lated in­ci­dents could re­sult in sit­u­a­tions where both sides would ex­change fire,” said the se­nior U.S. of­fi­cial. “We would count on both sides to pull back.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A Venezue­lan sol­dier stands be­hind a map show­ing the de­ploy­ment of troops along the Colom­bian bor­der in Ce­deno, Venezuela. Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Hugo Chavez is send­ing 15,000 sol­diers to the bor­der with Colom­bia.

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