Venezuela breaks ties with Colombia over rebel row

CARACAS, July 22 (AFP) – Venezuela has broken off diplomatic ties with Colombia in a worsening row over accusations from Bogota that it is providing a safe haven to hundreds of leftist guerrillas.

"I announce with a tear in the heart: Venezuela breaks off from this moment all relations with the government of Colombia," Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez told reporters.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez greets journalists at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas. AFP photo

His foreign minister, Nicolas Maduro, immediately followed that statement by issuing a 72-hour deadline for Colombia to withdraw its diplomats from Venezuela and close its embassy. Venezuela would also close its embassy in Bogota, he added.

The announcement marked a fresh spike in tensions between the South American neighbors, which nearly went to war in 2008 over a Colombian military raid into Ecuador to destroy a cross-border rebel camp.

Venezuela also called for Ecuador, which holds the rotating presidency of regional body Unasur, to call an emergency meeting of foreign ministers to "denounce the serious attacks from the Colombian government against (Venezuelan) sovereignty.

"This new attack sets the scene for a dangerous escalation," Venezuela's foreign ministry said in a statement.

Colombia, Washington's staunchest military ally in the region, and Venezuela, a leftist Cuban ally that has used its oil wealth to accumulate an arsenal of modern Russian warplanes and weapons, have frequently quarreled over the past few years.

The putative help Chavez is accused of giving the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas has fueled much of the ill-will and sent relations in a tailspin.

Colombia and Venezuela froze diplomatic ties last year after Bogota and Washington inked a military cooperation agreement Chavez considered a threat to regional security.

A mutual loathing between Chavez and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe -- who steps down on August 7 to be succeeded by his former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos -- has also aggravated the situation.

Santos declined to comment on the row.

Chavez's latest decision to break ties came in response to Uribe's charge that rebels from the FARC and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) insurgency group were using Venezuela as a rear base.

Uribe spoke last week of "the presence in Venezuela of terrorists who are seeking to attack our country."

Four FARC leaders and one from the ELN were in Venezuela, are operating from there with impunity and threatening to take the matter to international forums, he said.

Venezuela has strenuously denied the accusations, and last week recalled its ambassador to Bogota to register its anger.

Colombia responded in kind, withdrawing its envoy to Caracas days later.

The Colombian representative to the Organization of American States, Luis Hoyos, told the Washington-based body on Thursday that there were 1,500 Colombian insurgents in Venezuela split into dozens of camps established in recent years.

Bogota has evidence of "the consolidated, active and growing presence of these terrorist bands in the brother country of Venezuela," he said.

Showing graphic photos of victims of attacks he said were carried out by Venezuelan-based guerrillas, Hoyos said Caracas must "accept its obligation" to bar the rebels from its territory.

Colombian Ambassador María Luisa Chiappe said cutting ties was "one of the most drastic actions you can take in diplomacy, making this a serious and lamentable situation."

She said all Colombian diplomats in Venezuela would return to Bogota within the deadline imposed by Chavez, but that administrative staff would stay on at the missions.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon urged both sides to avoid further escalation, expressing hope the neighbors could smooth out their differences through dialogue.

He "calls for restraint by all involved so that the situation can be resolved in a peaceful manner," his spokesman Martin Nesirky said.

The US State Department said Chavez's decision to cut ties was not the "proper way" to raise concerns.

But the Venezuelan president said his decision was "lamentable but necessary" and based on "dignity" in the face of Colombia's allegations.

"If there is any Colombian guerrilla camp (in Venezuela), it is without authorization," Chavez said.

He claimed the outgoing Colombian leader was responsible for the dive in relations, saying: "Uribe is capable of ordering a fake camp be built on the Venezuelan side to attack it and cause a war."

He warned that "we would go crying to a war with Colombia, but we would go."

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