BOGOTA (AFP) — Venezuela and Ecuador moved their armies to the Colombian border and shut down their embassies in Bogota, as tensions soared over Colombia's cross-border killing of a top Colombian FARC rebel in Ecuador.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said Sunday he was sending troops, tanks and fighter aircraft to his country's border with Colombia, a move the White House called an "odd reaction" to Colombia's fight against what the US government deems "a terrorist organization."
"Mr Defense Minister (Gustavo Rangel), send 10 batallions at once to the border with Colombia! Tank units, military aviation get moving!" Chavez said during his weekly "Alo Presidente" television and radio program.
Chavez' fiery words followed a Colombian army raid Saturday on a jungle camp just inside Ecuador of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's largest leftist rebel group. The attack killed FARC's second-in-command Raul Reyes.
Chavez said Ecuador "is moving troops to its northern border (with Colombia)," adding that Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa "can count on Venezuela for whatever it needs, in any situation."
"We don't want war," said Chavez, "but we won't let the Empire (United States) or its lap dog (Colombian) President (Alvaro) Uribe to try to make us weaker."
Chavez also ordered his foreign minister to "shut down our embassy in Bogota and tell all our officials to come home." Venezuela's ambassador to Colombia had already been recalled in November during a previous Chavez-Uribe spat.
An indignant Ecuador government complained that Saturday's raid violated its territorial sovereignty, and also recalled its ambassador to Bogota, warning that Colombia's actions might result in "ultimate consequences."
Correa also canceled a visit to Cuba to deal with the crisis at home, while Ecuador's foreign ministry lodged a formal protest with Bogota.
Colombia, for its part, insisted Sunday it did not violate Ecuador's sovereignty, because the military operation was taken for "legitimate defense."
The foreign ministry in Bogota said in a statement it would issue a formal response to Correa's protest.
"Terrorists, including Raul Reyes, customarily have carried out assassinations in Colombia, and then fled to neighboring countries for refuge," the foreign ministry said.
Correa was told of the cross-border raid by Uribe in a telephone call on Saturday. His initial calm reaction gave way to anger when he received military reports from the targeted rebel camp.
"The bodies were in their underclothes, in pyjamas," he told a press conference. "In other words, there was no hot pursuit; they were bombed and massacred in their sleep."
The United States, which has been backing Colombia in its decades-long fight against leftist guerrillas, said it was monitoring the situation in South America. A spokesman for President George W. Bush was surprised by Chavez's strong statements.
"This is an odd reaction by Venezuela to Colombia's efforts against the FARC, a terrorist organization that continues to hold Colombians, Americans and others hostage," Gordon Johndroe told reporters at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas.
With no love lost between Chavez and Uribe, especially after Chavez was fired in November as a mediator in tentative Bogota/FARC talks on a prisoners-for-hostages swap, Chavez on Sunday slammed Uribe for violating Ecuadoran territory.
"President Uribe is a criminal, not only a liar, he is a mafioso, a paramilitary leading a terrorist state. He's a criminal who heads a gang of criminals at the Narino Palace (Colombia's presidential office)."
He said Colombia "has become the Israel of Latin America."
Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said Reyes, 59, was in a rebel camp located 1.8 kilometers (a mile) from the Ecuadoran-Colombian border when the air force began bombing shortly after midnight.
Colombian ground troops were then deployed into the guerrilla hideout to secure the area, Santos said, adding that a total of 17 guerrillas and one Colombian soldier were killed in the operation.
"It is the heaviest blow ever dealt against this terrorist group," Santos said.
Reyes, 59, whose real name was Luis Edgar Devia, had been viewed as a possible successor to FARC's 77-year-old boss, Manuel Marulanda.
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