The Herald

Three-nation crisis as leader is accused of funding rebels

Ecuador sends troops and cuts diplomatic ties with Colombia

- JORGE SILVA QUITO

ECUADOR last night broke off diplomatic ties with Colombia, escalating a dispute across the Andean region that erupted after Colombian soldiers raided inside its southern neighbour to kill a rebel leader.

Colombia also fuelled the tensions by accusing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez of funding Colombia’s Marxist rebels, a charge denied by the government of the anti-US president.

The three-nation crisis erupted when Colombia flew troops into Ecuador at the weekend in a bombing raid that killed a leading guerrilla commander of the Revolution­ary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

I t w a s a bl ow t o La t i n America’s oldest guerrilla group. Chavez responded by ordering troops and tanks to the border with Colombia and he warned conservati­ve Presi- dent Alvaro Uribe that a similar strike on Venezuelan soil could lead to war.

Ecuador has also sent thousands of troops to the border and took another step in the dispute yesterday.

“The Ecuadorean government has decided to break off diplomatic relations,” it said in a letter to Colombia’s foreign ministry.

Colombia earlier said it found documents in the FARC camp inside Ecuador showing evidence that Chavez gave the rebels £150m and that the commander who was killed, Raul Reyes, had ties with an official close to Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa.

B o t h Ve n e z u e l a a n d Ecuador denied the allegation­s.

“T he government of Ecuador energetica­lly rejects these accusation­s which cynically add to the hostile attitude shown in the recent violation of our sovereignt­y,” Correa’s government said.

Reyes had been involved in talks with Venezuela, France and Ecuador to win the freedom of hostages held for years in the FARC’s jungle camps.

Chavez has brokered those talks, securing the release of six captives this year. He called the killing of Reyes a cowardly assassinat­ion.

Latin American government­s, including diplomatic heavyweigh­t Brazil, also lined up to condemn Colombia’s raid and to demand an explanatio­n.

Government­s from France to the United States also tried to defuse the tensions between Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a conservati­ve, and his left-wing rivals.

“The most important thing today is that we can avoid an escalation of this conflict,” Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said.

Traffic was normal in San Antonio at the main border c r o s s i n g p o i n t b e t we e n Venezuela and Colombia, and while Venezuela and Ecuador said they had reinforced their borders, there was no immediate sign of any mobilisati­on.

Despite the leaders’ brinkmansh­ip and the risk of military missteps, political analysts said a conflict was unlikely on borders that stretch from parched desert through Andean mountains and jungles to the Pacific.

Chavez, the leader of a growing bloc of left-wing Latin American leaders, may win points with supporters by challengin­g Uribe, but experts say he can ill afford to lose food imports from Colombia as he tries to combat chronic food shortages in his oil-producing nation.

Neverthele­ss, with Chavez warning war could break out, there was an immediate impact on the economies of the three nations, whose crossborde­r trade is worth billions of dollars. Venezuelan and Ecuadorean debt and Colombia’s currency all lost value.

“It significan­tly raises headline risks for all three countries,” said Gianfranco Bertozzi of Lehman Brothers.

Colombia justified its incursion into Ecuador at the weekend by saying internatio­nal law allowed such actions against terrorists, and it accused Ecuador of allowing the rebels to take refuge in its territory.

However, Ecuador said Colombia had deliberate­ly violated its sovereignt­y. It urged other Latin American government­s to put pressure on Uribe’s government so that it did not repeat the “aggression”.–Reuters

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