WASHINGTON (AFP) — Wading into an escalating South American border crisis, US President George W. Bush said Tuesday that he "fully supports" Colombia and condemned "provocative maneuvers" by Venezuela.
In his first public comments on a dispute that also involves neighboring Ecuador, Bush said that he had told Colombian President Alvaro Uribe by telephone "that America fully supports Colombia's democracy and that we firmly oppose any acts of aggression that could destabilize the region."
"He updated me on the situation in his country, including the continuing assault by narco-terrorists as well as the provocative maneuvers by the regime in Venezuela," said the US president.
"Our country's message to President Uribe and the people of Colombia is that we stand with our democratic ally," said Bush, who used the volatile border dispute to urge the US Congress to approve the US-Colombia free trade deal.
"By acting at this critical moment we can show the Colombian people and millions across the region that they can count on America to keep its word and that freedom is the surest path to prosperity and peace," he said.
"If we fail to approve this agreement, we will let down our close ally, we will damage our credibility in the region and we will embolden the demagogues in our hemisphere," Bush said in a thinly veiled shot at Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Earlier, the crisis worsened when Venezuela said it was closing its border with Colombia, even as frantic diplomatic talks to stave off war were about to begin.
This aggravated the stand-off between Colombia and leftwing neighbors Venezuela and Ecuador, which was triggered by a Colombian raid inside Ecuador to kill a commander of the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
In response, Venezuela and Ecuador ordered thousands of troops to their borders with Colombia, and Bogota's ambassadors out of their countries amid sharpening rhetoric.
Bush made no mention of Ecuador, but emphasized that he had told Uribe "that America will continue to stand with Colombia as it confronts violence and terror and fights drug traffickers."
"President Uribe told me that one of the most important ways America can demonstrate support for Colombia is by moving forward with a free trade agreement that we negotiated," said Bush.
The US president for months has insisted that the pact is key to national security, portraying its still-uncertain approval as a blow to the left-wing Chavez, a frequent target of Washington's rhetorical barbs.
"My message to the United States Congress is that this trade agreement is more than a matter of smart economics, it is a matter of national security," Bush said.
"The free trade agreement will show the Colombian people that democracy and free enterprise lead to a better life. It will help President Uribe counter the radical vision of those who are seeking to undermine democracy and create divisions within our hemisphere," he stressed.
"The president told me that the people across the region are watching to see what the United States will do. So Republicans and Democrats in Congress need to come together and approve this agreement," said Bush.
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