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Colombia's War Creeps Over Border Into Venezuela

Sun May 25, 2003 09:36 AM ET
By Pascal Fletcher

MACHIQUES, Venezuela (Reuters) - In the dawn light, it looked like an official road block.

There were red traffic cones on the road and the armed men guarding it wore camouflage uniforms that seemed similar to those used by Venezuela's National Guard.

But the Venezuelan bank executive making his daily early morning drive to work in western Zulia state had the fright of his life when the four men pointed their automatic rifles at him and ordered him out of the car.

"Their leader said they were guerrillas and that they needed my car to get to Colombia," the executive, who asked not to be named, told Reuters. The gang, who he said spoke Spanish with Colombian accents, threw the traffic cones into the car trunk and sped off toward the Colombian border.

Such hold-ups are common in Venezuela's neighbor Colombia, where a bloody four-decade-old war pits leftist rebels against government troops and right-wing paramilitaries.

But the executive's recent experience took place more than 30 miles inside Venezuela, near Rosario on the main road leading south from Maracaibo, Venezuela's second-biggest city and a major oil producing zone in the world's No. 5 oil exporter.

Ranchers and farmers in the Zulia border region say that Colombian guerrillas and paramilitaries are increasingly encroaching into Venezuelan territory, bringing with them an increase in killings, kidnappings, robberies and extortion.

And they complain that left-wing President Hugo Chavez' government is doing little, if anything, to stop it.

WAR SPILLOVER

The spillover of Colombia's war into Venezuela is a point of friction between the two Andean neighbors. Their 1,400-mile frontier is a rugged patchwork of mountain, jungle, savannah and rich pastureland.

Venezuela and Colombia earlier this year accused each other of not protecting the border. The war of words threatened to damage relations, and Chavez met his Colombian counterpart Alvaro Uribe in April to defuse the crisis.

In a surprisingly cordial encounter, they pledged to work together to try to keep the border secure.

But their smiles did little to dispel the fears of Venezuelan ranchers at Machiques, a prosperous farm town surrounded by lush grazing land near the frontier.

The ranchers say that guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombia's biggest rebel group, are roaming freely in the nearby Sierra de Perija mountains which straddle the border.

They said that from this stronghold sprinkled with drug traffickers' poppy fields, the guerrillas are foraying into Venezuela, raiding farms, extorting money and kidnapping landowners.

"The guerrillas are not even hiding any more ... they're setting up road blocks," Fabricio Rincon, president of the Machiques Ranchers' Association, told Reuters.

He said there had been five kidnappings of local farmers in the area so far this year, the most recent in early May.

Colombian officials and army commanders, and Venezuela's fiercely anti-Chavez media, have repeatedly denounced what they say are FARC camps located inside Venezuelan territory.

Chavez, a former paratrooper who was first elected in 1998 and survived a coup last year, rejects these accusations and insists Venezuelan troops will repel any incursions.

BORDER REINFORCED

This month, Chavez ordered two army ranger brigades, more than 4,000 men, to join the 20,000 troops Venezuela says it already has guarding the frontier.

But commanders admit that, apart from the main crossing points, it is almost impossible to police the whole frontier. "It's not a line, a fence you can see...There's dense jungle," Venezuela's Interior Minister Gen. Lucas Rincon told Reuters.

Opponents of Chavez, including landowners he condemns as wealthy "oligarchs," accuse the president and the armed forces of tolerating and even collaborating with the guerrillas, who are termed "terrorists" by the Colombian and U.S. governments.

"Our armed forces don't do any intelligence work or patrolling," said Adonay Martinez, leader of the Maracaibo Lake Ranchers' Association.

Critics point to Chavez' anti-capitalist rhetoric, his self-declared "revolution" in favor of social justice and his close alliance with Cuba's communist President Fidel Castro as evidence that he sympathizes with the Colombian rebel cause.

"We do not support any guerrillas," the populist president said recently, dismissing these criticisms.

Colombian paramilitaries killĀ  PPT leader inside Venezuela ... 14 more on hit list!

Venezuela's Electronic News
Posted: Monday, April 28, 2003
By: Patrick J. O'Donoghue

Colombian paramilitaries have murdered Patria Para Todos (PPT) Apure State regional leader, Jorge Nieves. According to PPT national leader, Rafael Uzcategui, the death follows documented threats against 15 PPT activists in the border states of Apure and Tachira.

Nieves worked in the oil industry for the Energy & Mines (MEM) Ministry and received four bullets, as he parked his car in Guasdualito to join a march for landless peasants.

In a public statement, PPT says it will not heed the threats from people attempting to destabilize border areas. Uzcategui insists that the paramilitaries are Colombian and not Venezuela as reported in some newspapers.

Meanwhile in Zulia State, the Police Detective Branch (PTJ) reports that Self-Defense Units of Colombia (AUC) paramilitaries have killed two Colombian citizens the AUC claims to have been collaborators of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The summary execution took place in the jungle region of Venezuela's Maria Semprun municipality (Zulia).

Jose Antonio Acevedo Urbina (33) and Edith Panataleon (42) were shot in the back allegedly escaping an AUC cross-border raid.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Office (UNHRC) has confirmed the presence of displaced persons in several border States fleeing the violence in Colombia.

Chavez to seal border

news24.com
24/04/2003 10:29 - (SA)

Puerto Ordaz - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez promised at a meeting here on Wednesday with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to increase border patrols to keep armed Colombian groups from entering Venezuela.

"Call them archangels or terrorists. The important thing is to capture them," Uribe told reporters at a joint press conference with Chavez in this far eastern Venezuelan city.

Right-wing paramilitaries as well as leftist rebels often cross Colombia's borders into neighbouring countries, sometimes building rest camps and bases in remote locations.

The two presidents discussed border security and trade issues in the one-day summit.

The meeting took place amid a tense period of relations, with Bogota accusing Caracas of ignoring leftist rebel camps in its territory, and Caracas blaming the Colombian government of leniency towards right-wing paramilitaries.

Chavez, a populist, is sympathetic towards the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombia's largest guerrilla group, and refuses to describe them as terrorists.

Some Colombians have even accused Chavez of protecting two of the FARC's top leaders in Venezuela.

"They've even said that Saddam Hussein was in Caracas, and that Bin Laden traveled here," Chavez when asked about the charges. "I'm not going to respond to that," he said.

Colombia's Uribe Visits Venezuela to Smooth Disputes Between Both Countries

Pravda
By Hernan Etchaleco
04/24/2003 10:30

The summit comes at a moment when bilateral relations between both South American nations are tense. Border security and trade issues were discussed in Puerto Ordaz, Southern Venezuela. After Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe Velez sworn in on August 2002, the relation with his bordering counterpart, Hugo Chavez Frias, gradually deteriorated. Colombia has repeatedly accused Caracas of sheltering groups to find cover in Venezuelan territory after crossing their common border. Venezuela, in turn, protested for the incursion of Colombian paramilitaries within its territory and recently ordered air strikes against those groups.

Also, a trading dispute involving Colombian and Venezuelan corporations has played its part to tense bilateral connections. According to official reports, a group of businessmen in Caracas owe Colombian companies around 300 million dollars and Chavez promised a solution in the short term.

All in all, it looks like not only official stuff separates both leaders, but also ideological positions over internal and foreign affairs. While Uribe vows for closer ties with Washington, Chavez stands for a more independent line in foreign affairs, providing Cuba with economical aid and approaching the Mercosur, block led by Brazil and Argentina.

Uribe has repeatedly pledged for US military aid to fight rebels and even asked for a large-scale US disembark in Colombia "like the one in Iraq". Naturally, Venezuela's authorities are very reluctant to see Rumsfeld's forces fighting 400 kilometers away from Caracas, as Chavez believes Washington was behind the frustrated coup against his administration on April 2002.

On the other hand, communist support to Caracas' government dislike of the hard-line policy to fight guerrillas adopted by Uribe. The Communist Party of Venezuela supports Chavez, and some of its high members officially collaborate with Venezuela's government as advisors. This left wing force supports the actions of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia v FARC - and other marxist rebel groups, as they were originally organized by Colombian communists.

Despite allegations, Chavez said he's committed to improving relations with Colombia. News agencies in Caracas report that Chavez denies his government has ever aided Colombia's leftist insurgent groups. He has said groups in both countries are trying to ruin the neighbors' relationship, but he said he's optimistic that Wednesday's meeting would be a success despite his adversaries' efforts to "sabotage" it.

In the airport of Macagua, Uribe and Chavez addressed formal statements in which pledged for full integration between both countries. "This welcome comes from the bottom of my soul", said Chavez in his usual flowered way of speaking. "I trust in our capabilities to build, in this century, the full and true integration of our peoples, economies and potentials".

Both leaders also discussed how to improve the weakened trading between Venezuela and Colombia. According to official statistics, trade between the two nations topped $2 billion over the last two years. However, According to estimates from the Colombian Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce and Integration, bilateral trade could fall by as much as 60 percent this year due to restrictions to foreign trading recently implemented by Chavez to block flight of capital.

The summit was the second that Chavez and Uribe have held in less than six months. The previous meeting took place on November 14 in Colombia.

Venezuelan, Colombian presidents vow to boost security at border

Anchorage Daily News-Nando Media-AP Online
By FABIOLA SANCHEZ, Associated Press

PUERTO ORDAZ, Venezuela (April 23, 5:50 p.m. ADT) - Colombia and Venezuela agreed Wednesday to increase security along their remote border to stop crossings by Colombian guerrillas and paramilitaries.

Colombia has been fighting a 38-year-war against the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the smaller National Liberation Army as well as illegal paramilitary militias.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said Colombia's conflict increasingly threatened the stability of the entire Andean region. The two countries share a 1,500-mile border.

"We are going to do everything necessary so that neither rebels nor paramilitaries can cross the border," Uribe said after the leaders' one-day meeting in the southeastern mining town of Puerto Ordaz.

"We value the firm determination that President Chavez has expressed to coordinate (border) efforts," Uribe said.

Both leaders played down allegations that Venezuela harbors leftist Colombian guerrillas and that Venezuelan aircraft bombed rightist paramilitaries inside Colombia.

The two leaders agreed to meet again on July 22 in Medellin, Colombia.

Venezuela had been angered by Colombian accusations that Caracas shelters leftist insurgents.

"We don't understand how Venezuela has allowed itself to become a refuge for Colombian criminals," Colombian Attorney General Luis Camilo Osorio said in remarks published Sunday.

Venezuela, in turn, accused Colombia's military of having links with paramilitaries responsible for human rights crimes.

Chavez's government worries that increased fighting associated with the U.S.-backed Plan Colombia, which targets drug trafficking, is spilling into Venezuela.

Asked about Colombian claims that FARC guerrilla leader Angel Paris is hiding in Caracas, Chavez said his opponents "say everyone has passed through Caracas," including Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

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