South America was on the brink of war yesterday as Venezuela and Ecuador amassed troops on the Colombian border in response to the killing of a Marxist rebel leader.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez threatened to join the rebels in a war to overthrow hard-line Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a key ally of the United States, deploying tanks, fighter jets and thousands of troops along the Colombian border.
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa also ordered troops to the border, expelled Colombia’s ambassador and recalled its ambassador to Bogota, but left its embassy open. Venezuela closed its embassy in Colombia and ordered all diplomats home.
A weekend battle sparked the mobilization, in which Colombian forces killed a top leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in a camp in Ecuador.
Uribe probably faces a far more difficult challenge with Chvez, who has become increasingly antagonistic toward Colombia as his popularity has fallen in Venezuela over problems including rising crime and food shortages. On Sunday, Chvez raised the possibility of war if Colombia entered Venezuelan territory, emphasizing Venezuela’s new military hardware, including Russian-made Sukhoi fighter aircraft.
“This could be the start of a war in South America,” Chvez said. “Because if it occurs to you to do that in Venezuela, President Uribe, I’ll send some Sukhois, so you know it, pal.”
Chvez also said Uribe heads a “narco-government” beholden to the Bush administration. “lvaro Uribe could be the head of a mafia but never a country. A mafiosi can never be president of a country, less so a South American country and less so a country like Colombia,” Chvez said, according to Union Radio in Caracas.
Chvez had warm words for Devia, who had joined the FARC in the 1970s and was wanted by the Colombian government for drug trafficking and murder. Chvez recalled that the two first met in 1995, three years before his election as president, and that they met twice after he took office.
The president asked for a minute of silence for Devia, who was better known by his nom de guerre, Ral Reyes. “We pay tribute to a good revolutionary, who was Ral Reyes,” he said.