Chavez foe: Venezuela a refuge for Colombia rebels

AP News
Posted: Nov 11, 2009 9:26 PM

A prominent opponent of President Hugo Chavez accused the socialist leader's government on Wednesday of turning a blind eye to leftist Colombian rebels taking refuge in border areas of Venezuela.

Tachira state Gov. Cesar Perez said both leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups from Colombia operate in nearly a third of his border state, but he said Venezuelan troops ignore the rebels and try to root out only the right-wing militias.

"The guerrillas are there with the government's blessing and the military has orders to leave them alone," Perez told The Associated Press in an interview. "The government only fights the paramilitaries, and I think it's good they fight them, but the government has to do the same with the guerrillas, and it isn't doing that."

Chavez has long denied aiding Colombian rebels, saying his government remains neutral in Colombia's decades-long armed conflict. He says he has ordered Venezuela's military to confront any illegal armed group that slips across the border.

Colombian rebels have used Venezuela's side of the 1,400-mile (2,300-kilometer) border for years as a haven to resupply and treat their wounded, creating friction with Colombia's government.

Tachira's state police are incapable of confronting the illegal groups, Perez said, because Venezuela's government confiscated all of its assault rifles, leaving roughly half of the state's 2,700-officer force with old .38 caliber revolvers.

"Almost half of the police officers don't even have revolvers," he said.

Government officials have said the weapons were seized because they didn't have proper serial numbers. Chavez has accused Perez of aiding paramilitary groups, saying the opposition leader lets them cross into Venezuela as part of a broader plot to destabilize the government. Perez denies it and says Chavez hasn't presented evidence supporting his claims.

Tensions in Tachira have been exacerbated in recent weeks by a series of shootings and slayings.

Gunmen on motorcycles killed two Venezuelan National Guard soldiers at a checkpoint near the border last week. Last month, Venezuelan authorities arrested at least 10 people in Tachira alleging involvement in paramilitary groups. The bullet-ridden bodies of 11 men, nine of them Colombians, were also found last month in Tachira after being abducted from a soccer field.

The violence aggravated long-standing tensions between the two countries. Venezuela announced last week that it was deploying additional troops to the border to help increase security, but Perez said he has not seen a significant military build-up in Tachira.

Chavez scaled back relations with Colombia in July to protest a since-signed agreement giving U.S. troops greater access to Colombian military bases.

Calling the pact a threat to the region, Chavez ordered his military on Sunday to prepare for a possible conflict with Colombia in case the U.S. attempts to provoke a conflict between the neighbors. Colombia responded by announcing plans to file complaints with the Organization of American States and U.N. Security Council.

Brazil urged the two nations on Wednesday to sign a non-aggression pact and offered to patrol their shared border using the Brazilian air force.

"If we have a specific problem between two countries, the pact must involve those two countries," Marco Aurelio Garcia, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's foreign affairs adviser, told journalists in Brasilia.

There was no immediate comment from officials in Caracas or Bogota.


Associated Press Writer Marco Sibaja in Brasilia contributed to this report.