QUITO — A meeting of South American ministers ended without a consensus due in part to reservations from Colombia after a diplomatic spat between the United States and Venezuela over military deals in the region.
The meeting in Ecuador of the foreign and defense ministers of the 12 countries that make up the fledgling Union of South American Nations (Unasur) ended in disarray because of differences over the signing of military deals with non-Unasur countries.
"This is the topic on which we need to continue working. We need guarantees and limits... especially as concerns international agreements," Ecuadoran Defense Minister Javier Ponce told reporters.
Foreign Minister Fander Falconi said "the discussion stalled on the type of guarantees" and noted that the Colombian government requested more time.
The meeting was overshadowed by disputes between Washington and Caracas, which accused each other of triggering a possible arms race in South America through military deals seen as destabilizing for the region.
"We have expressed concern about the number of Venezuelan arms purchases," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Washington. "Certainly (they) raise the question as to whether there is going to be an arms race in the region."
But Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro shot back during the Unasur meeting that an imminent US deal to use seven Colombian bases was the real cause for concern.
"How can the secretary of state say Venezuela is involved in an arms race when it is her country installing seven military bases?" Maduro asked, saying Clinton's words "have no political or moral basis."
Washington has said the deal is aimed at boosting counternarcotics and anti-guerrilla cooperation between the United States and Colombia.
Originally called to explore widespread concerns in South America over the US-Colombia deal, the meeting was expanded to discuss other major defense pacts, including Venezuela's arms purchases from Russia, and Brazil's big weapons buys from France.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has announced a string of recent contracts with Moscow to buy 24 advanced fighter jets, 92 battle tanks and 300 surface-to-air missiles among other weapons acquisitions. The total value of the deals is more than six billion dollars.
A fierce US critic, Chavez has said the arms are not to threaten neighboring countries but a response to threats he sees from the US "empire" wanting to invade his oil-rich nation.
Ecuador, the current Unasur chair, has called on South American states to be open with their neighbors about the aims of their arms build-ups, and exchange information to dispel concerns.
"The region does not want to find itself in an arms race," Ecuadoran Foreign Minister Falconi said ahead of the meeting.
But he also reiterated concerns voiced by Venezuela, Bolivia, Chile, Brazil and Argentina that the US-Colombia deal would allow a US presence in the region that goes well beyond the stated mission of fighting Colombian drug traffickers and rebels.
Colombia, which has received nearly six billion dollars in mostly military aid from the United States since 1999, has so far rebuffed demands that it give its neighbors legally binding guarantees that US personnel and hardware will not operate outside Colombian territory.
"There must be guarantees not just for one but for all," said Colombian Defense Minister Gabriel Silva.
Venezuela and Ecuador briefly put their military forces on near-war footing against Colombia in March 2008 after Bogota ordered a cross-border raid into Ecuador to kill a rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) leader.
Bogota accuses Chavez of backing the FARC with money and weapons.
Brazil, which has also expressed skepticism over US aims in South America, could see its recent deals with France subjected to scrutiny under the broadened terms of the Unasur meeting.
Brasilia has already agreed to spend 12 billion dollars to buy five French submarines -- one of which will be converted to nuclear power -- and 50 military helicopters.
It has also opened contract negotiations to buy 36 modern French fighter jets for an additional four to seven billion dollars.
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