By Nina Negron (AFP) – Jul 23, 2010
BOGOTA — The United States threw its support behind key ally Colombia Friday in a row with Venezuela that has seen the South American neighbors break ties amid escalating military tensions.
Colombia's allegations that Venezuela was harboring 1,500 Colombian rebels in camps on its territory -- the trigger for the dispute -- "need to be taken very seriously," the US State Department said.
State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters in Washington, however, that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's decision Thursday to sever all diplomatic relations with Colombia and put border troops on alert was "a petulant response."
Venezuelan Attorney General Luisa Ortega said soldiers were being mobilized to border towns to boost security. And Defense Minister Carlos Mata said that, while the frontier was currently calm, the army was ready to "give a robust response" if Colombian forces attacked.
Fear the confrontation could spill over into military action galvanized other countries in the region.
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was to make an August 6 trip to Venezuela to try to defuse the situation with Chavez, his office said.
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa said he was seeking a meeting of leaders from the Unasur regional bloc to help resolve the row.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon, meanwhile, urged both sides to avoid further escalation.
The row revived long-simmering tensions between Colombia, the biggest US military ally in the region, and Venezuela, a friend of Cuba that has used its oil wealth to accumulate an arsenal of modern Russian warplanes and weaponry.
The two countries almost went to war in 2008 over a raid Colombia made into Ecuador to destroy a rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) camp.
Last year, Chavez froze ties with Colombia after Bogota agreed to give the US military access to seven of its bases to fight cocaine production and trafficking -- activities in which Colombian rebels are deeply involved.
Colombia now claims Venezuela is serving as a rear base for insurgents from the FARC and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN).
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe -- who hands over the reins of power to his former defense minister early next month -- launched the allegation last week.
On Thursday, his envoy to the Organization of American States (OAS) produced photos, videos, coordinates and satellite maps he said proved rebels were operating out of more than 80 camps in Venezuela.
Chavez, denying the allegations, said his army pursued any Colombian insurgents in Venezuela. He accused Uribe of using the putative camps as a pretext "to attack us and cause a war."
The Venezuelan government gave Colombia until the end of the weekend to withdraw its diplomats and close its Caracas embassy.
The United States -- which has funneled eight billion dollars in military aid to Colombia over the past decade, coincidentally the same period Chavez has been in power -- made it clear it supported Bogota.
"Venezuela has an obligation to Colombia and to the international community to fully investigate this information and move to prevent the use of its sovereign territory by terrorist groups," the State Department said in a statement.
Crowley, the State Department spokesman, said that "if Venezuela fails to cooperate in whatever follow-on steps are made, the United States and other countries will obviously take account of that."
US Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Judith Hale is also due to make a four-day trip to Colombia starting Sunday to boost ties.
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