Chavez sends tanks to Colombia border in dispute

By Saul Hudson, Reuters, March 2, 2008

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela President Hugo Chavez ordered tank battalions to the Colombian border and mobilized warplanes on Sunday after Colombian troops struck inside Ecuador in an attack on rebels.

He also ordered the shutting of Venezuela's embassy in Colombia and the withdrawal of all diplomatic staff in the dispute, warning Colombia's actions could spark a war in South America.

"Mr. Defense Minister, move me 10 battalions to the frontier with Colombia immediately, tank battalions," Chavez said on his weekly TV show. "The air force should mobilize. We do not want war."

Colombia's military said on Saturday troops had killed Raul Reyes, a leader of Marxist FARC rebels, during an attack on a jungle camp in Ecuador in a severe blow to Latin America's oldest guerrilla insurgency. The operation included air strikes and fighting with rebels across the frontier.

On Saturday, the anti-U.S. Chavez warned Colombia against doing the same in Venezuela because he would interpret it as a "cause for war." On Sunday, he said he would send Russian-made fighter jets into U.S. ally Colombia if its troops struck in Venezuela.

The leftist, anti-U.S. Chavez has been in a diplomatic dispute with his ideological opposite, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, for months because of the Venezuelan's mediation with FARC rebels over their hostages. Uribe has accused Chavez of using the mediation to meddle in Colombian affairs.

On Sunday, Chavez accused Uribe of lying about the details of the operation that killed the rebel in Ecuador, where the leftist government of President Rafael Correa is a close Venezuelan ally. He called it a "cowardly assassination" of a "good revolutionary."

Ecuador has withdrawn its ambassador in protest and also questioned if Uribe lied when he initially explained to his southern neighbor that the strike was in response to fire from rebels across the border against Colombian troops.

"He (Uribe) is a criminal," Chavez said. "Not only is he a liar, a mafia boss, a paramilitary who leads a narco-government and leads a government that is a lackey of the United States ... he leads a band of criminals from his palace."

(Reporting by Saul Hudson; Editing by Bill Trott)

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