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Page last updated at 16:40 GMT, Thursday, 30 July 2009 17:40 UK

Colombia's rocky regional relations

By Jeremy McDermott
BBC News, Medellin

Hugo Chavez (left) Alvaro Uribe (centre) Rafael Correa (right)
Mr Chavez and Mr Correa have voiced strong criticism of Mr Uribe (centre)

As Venezuela withdraws its ambassador to Colombia, Washington's last ally in the region finds itself surrounded by increasingly hostile neighbours.

President Rafael Correa of Ecuador has not had diplomatic relations with his northern neighbour since March 2008, when the Colombian air force bombed a camp of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), just inside Ecuador.

President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, a close ally of Mr Correa and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, has a sovereignty dispute with Colombia over some islands in the Caribbean.

And this week, Mr Chavez went on TV to declare that Venezuela was freezing diplomatic relations with Colombia.

His declaration came after the Colombian government said anti-tank rocket-launchers found in Farc camps had come from Venezuela, a suggestion that outraged the Venezuelan leader.

"Anyone can grab a rifle and put the seal of Venezuela on it and a serial number," said Mr Chavez, insisting his government has never delivered arms "to any guerrilla, or armed movement and this we have said to the Colombian government 501 times."

Mr Chavez said the Colombian accusations were "irresponsible".

"The next attack against Venezuela, another similar attack like this one, or accusation and we would break relations with Colombia's government," he said.

Military bases

The rocket-launchers in question are Swedish-made AT-4s, effective against armoured vehicles and bunkers. The Colombian government said it had found several such weapons in Farc camps and that the serial numbers had been traced back to a batch sold by Sweden to the Venezuelan military in 1988, information confirmed by Swedish authorities.

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Colombia informed Venezuela and Sweden of the capture of the weapons in June, but had no response from Venezuela.

Venezuela has broken off relations with Colombia before: in January 2005 after Colombian agents kidnapped a Farc commander in Venezuela and smuggled him across the border; then in March 2008 after the bombing of the Farc camp in Ecuador.

However, there is a new ingredient in the mix this time as Colombia is set to become the regional hub for US anti-drug operations.

Washington's main base was, until 17 July, at Manta in Ecuador but US troops were asked to leave by President Correa after the lease expired and was not renewed.

Now all US military resources in the region are based in Colombia, a fact that has increased tensions. President Evo Morales of Bolivia called the Colombian decision to host the Americans "treason", while Mr Ortega said it was "a threat to regional stability".

Actually, there is very little practical change to the US presence in Colombia, which has been a fact of life since 1999 and the launch of the US anti-narcotics strategy known as Plan Colombia.

There is no change to the number of troops that can be stationed in the country: a maximum of 800 soldiers and 600 defence contractors.

While the final details of the agreement have yet to be published, it seems a 10-year agreement will be signed allowing US troops, aircraft and naval vessels access to at least four Colombian bases.

Calls for calm

The diplomatic squabbling with its neighbours has already had economic consequences for Colombia. Ecuador has slapped tariffs on Colombian goods and President Chavez is threatening to do the same.

Since Venezuela is Colombia's biggest trading partner after the US, that could push the already shaky Colombian economy into a serious recession.

Colombian exports to Venezuela in the first half of this year were worth some $2.5bn (£1.5bn).

A Colombian soldier stares at the body of a Farc rebel during operations on 25 July
Rebels have been at war with the Colombian state since the 1960s

Mr Chavez has said he is already exploring alternative markets for goods.

But given Venezuela's dependence on Colombian products, particularly on food imports, new suppliers could not step in immediately and could be considerably more costly.

Other regional voices, including that of Brazil, have called for calm and dialogue.

If it were to come to military action, Colombia would find itself at a technological disadvantage as Venezuela has state-of-the-art aircraft, Sukhoi jet fighters, supplied by Russia. Venezuela also has tanks, unlike Colombia.

However, the Colombian military is battle-hardened after 45-years of fighting insurgents.

It does, though, have to face some 10,000 rebels and several heavily armed drugs cartels that could be guaranteed to make the most of any internal vacuum created by a conflict.

The principal benefactors of any hostility would also be its trigger: the Farc. They have a presence in both Ecuador and Venezuela and have long used neighbours to plan and launch attacks out of reach of the Colombian security forces.

A further breakdown in relations between Colombia and its neighbours could allow the rebels to operate more freely in the border areas.

Their dream would be for a conflict to start with neighbours so they can lead the charge against the government to expel the "gringos", the US military, from Colombia.



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