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Last Updated:  Monday, 31 March, 2003, 00:31 GMT 01:31 UK
Venezuela 'bombs Colombians'
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez
Chavez has antagonised neighbours with his leftist views
The Venezuelan army has bombed Colombian armed groups operating on its territory after a clash along the border, President Hugo Chavez said on Sunday.

"A short while ago, I ordered an air force operation and we bombed an area where we detected the presence of a group," he said in his weekly radio address to the nation.

He ordered the operation on Thursday after the Colombians, whom he did not identify, attacked a Venezuelan military post, and the action reportedly forced them to retreat back into Colombia.

Mr Chavez also revealed that Colombian President Alvaro Uribe had asked for a personal meeting within days to "clear up" difficulties between the two countries which share a 2,219-kilometre (1,379-mile) border.

"We are working on a presidential meeting which will take place in the next few days - we are deciding the time and place," Mr Chavez said, adding that it would probably take place in western Venezuela.

'Effective air strike'

The Colombian Government has been fighting leftist rebels for decades in a bloody civil war also involving right-wing paramilitaries.

Mr Chavez gave no details of the bombing operation and there have been no reports of casualties among the Colombian fighters.

Neither paramilitaries nor rebels nor the armed forces of Colombia have authorisation... to be on Venezuelan territory
Hugo Chavez
But he insisted that the air strike had been "effective... and caused the group to double back toward Colombian territory".

"Neither paramilitaries nor rebels nor the armed forces of Colombia have authorisation, nor will they have it, to be on Venezuelan territory," he said.

The Colombian irregulars had, he said, attacked a Venezuelan military post in a 90-minute firefight during which they fired a missile at an army helicopter.

Earlier in March, Venezuela announced it would boost its border garrison of 5,000 soldiers.

Mr Chavez's revelations appear to be the first official report of fighting in the border area this week.

A Colombian TV station reported on Sunday that fierce fighting on the Colombian side had caused 20 deaths.

The clashes between leftist rebels and rightwing paramilitaries in the Tibu district of Norte de Santander province forced more than 100 people to leave their homes and seek shelter across the border in Venezuela, Caracol TV said in an unconfirmed report.

Strained relations

Ties between the leftist government in Venezuela and Colombia's US-backed leaders have been strained in recent months:

  • The Venezuelan leader has accused Colombian businessmen of conspiring with Venezuelan colleagues to topple his leftist government, which has weathered both a coup and a damaging political strike over the past 12 months.

  • The Venezuelan Government has been accused by Colombian media and the Venezuelan opposition of aiding Colombian leftist rebels.

  • In February, the Colombian consulate in Caracas was damaged in a mysterious explosion.

Mr Chavez described Colombia as a "sister nation" in his speech on Sunday.

"Now, we are going to put things in their place, show each other mutual respect, work and build together," he said.


SEE ALSO:
Blasts rock Caracas embassies
25 Feb 03  |  Americas
Country profile: Venezuela
03 Jan 03  |  Country profiles
Timeline: Colombia
11 Mar 03  |  Country profiles
Profile: Hugo Chavez
05 Dec 02  |  Americas


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