Venezuela’s Chavez warns Colombia he could cut ties, won’t attend inauguration

By Fabiola Sanchez, AP
Friday, July 16, 2010

Chavez warns Colombia he could break off relations

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said Friday he won’t attend the inauguration of Colombia’s president-elect, and warned he could break off ties if the country’s outgoing leader persists in accusations that Colombian rebel leaders are taking refuge in Venezuela.

Chavez called the accusations “madness” and said in a televised speech he won’t attend the inauguration of President-elect Juan Manuel Santos.

Chavez denied the allegations by outgoing President Alvaro Uribe’s government, saying, “We don’t hide anyone here.” He said if those in Uribe’s government “continue with their madness, I’m going to break relations with Colombia in the coming hours.”

He also said, however, that the situation poses a test for Santos and that “if there is respect,” Venezuela will be willing to take up positive relations again.

Chavez called his ambassador home from Bogota for consultations in protest.

Colombian officials have long complained, mostly in private, that Chavez has harbored leaders of its two main rebel groups. But on Thursday, the Colombian Defense Ministry showed video, photographs and satellite images to Colombian journalists that it said proved the presence of rebel leaders in neighboring Venezuela.

Uribe leaves office on Aug. 7. The hard-line president has been widely credited for seriously weakening Colombia’s leftist insurgencies, one of which killed his father in a botched 1983 kidnapping.

Because Uribe has frequently feuded with the Venezuelan president, many Colombians believe the renewed accusations show his dissatisfaction with the olive branch that Santos has extended to Chavez.

Trade between Venezuela and Colombia has fallen 70 percent since Chavez froze relations over the past year in response to Colombia’s decision to grant Washington expanded access to its military bases.

If the situation with Colombia continues like this, Chavez said, trade will decline further and “we won’t buy anything, nothing at all from Colombia.”

Chavez called Uribe a “mafioso” but said he is adopting a wait-and-see approach to Santos.

Santos has stressed the importance of mending trade relations with Venezuela that overwhelmingly benefit Colombia’s food producers.

Uribe’s government said in a statement Friday that it asked the Organization of American States to convene a special session to “examine the presence of Colombian terrorists in Venezuelan territory.” It cited numerous failed efforts to resolve the problem through direct dialogue with Venezuela.

In Washington, U.S. State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley expressed concern and also said that “some of this is not new.”

“Venezuela is obliged, as a member of the United Nations, the OAS … to deny terrorist groups the ability to operate within its territory,” Crowley told reporters. “We’ve been concerned about this for some time.”

Associated Press Writers Ian James in Caracas, and Libardo Cardona and Carlos Gonzalez in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.

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