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22 July 2024

Ecuadoran, Colombian, Venezuelan leaders end feud

By Agencies


The presidents of Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela, with a simple handshake, settled a bitter feud here Friday that had raised fears of a military confrontation between the South American neighbors.


After trading verbal blows at the Rio Group summit of Latin American nations in Santo Domingo, Ecuador's Rafael Correa and Colombia's Alvaro Uribe agreed to end the crisis over Colombia's cross-border, anti-rebel raid last weekend.


"With the commitment of never attacking a brother country again and by asking forgiveness, we can consider this very serious incident resolved," Correa said before shaking hands with Uribe as other Latin American presidents applauded.


"God bless Ecuador, God bless Latin America," he said.


Uribe then gave a hardy handshake to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who had taken Ecuador's side in the dispute, after the summit's host, Dominican President Leonel Fernandez, requested a public show of reconciliation.


Chavez said he would meet with his cabinet "and we'll start de-escalation and let things get back to normal ... on the path of peace," adding that six billion dollars a year in trade with Colombia needed "to continue, better yet increase."


The summit had gotten off to a rocky start with Correa and Uribe exchanging accusations over Saturday's strike against FARC rebels, which prompted Quito and Caracas to deploy extra troops to their borders and break ties with Bogota.


The US-backed Colombian leader repeated charges that Saturday's raid inside Ecuador had yielded evidence of links between Correa and the Marxist rebels, sparking a fierce denial from the leftist Ecuadoran president.


"I cannot accept Uribe's lies," Correa said, and insisted: "These hands are not tainted with blood."


Correa urged the Rio Group to "clearly condemn" Colombia for the air raid, which killed Raul Reyes, the number two leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).


"The region is experiencing a rare moment of very grave consequences if we do not act in time," said Correa, who also called for the creation of an international force to control the border.


Uribe admitted he did not warn Correa ahead of Saturday's strike, but charged that the Ecuadoran leader's lack of cooperation against the FARC had forced Colombia to keep the operation secret.


"We have not gotten cooperation from President Correa in the fight against terrorism," he said.


It was Chavez, who many observers feared would further fan the flames during the summit, who sought to calm things down.


"We still have time to stop a whirlpool which we could regret," Chavez said. "Let's stop this ... Let's reflect, let's be cool-headed."


Following Colombia's raid, Chavez ordered 10 battalions – or at least 6,000 men – to the border with Colombia, along with tanks and armored vehicles. Ecuador also deployed troops to its Colombian frontier.


Colombia ruled out sending reinforcements to its borders.


The crisis had widened Thursday when leftist Nicaragua joined Ecuador and Venezuela in breaking relations with Colombia, but Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega announced after the summit that he would renew ties.


The United States backed Colombia, its staunchest ally in Latin America, during the crisis and criticized Chavez's involvement in the dispute.


The end of the dispute was a resounding success for the Rio Group of 20 Latin American democracies, whose summit was scheduled long before the crisis. The group was created in 1986 in part to find solutions to regional problems.


Despite Friday's happy ending, Colombia still has to deal with rebels who are reputed to use the cover of the jungle to slip into Venezuela and Ecuador to escape military persecution.


The FARC, which had sought to topple the government for four decades, is branded a terrorist group by the United States and European Union.


In a new blow to the FARC following Reyes's death, Colombian officials said Friday that another commander from the FARC's seven-member central high command had been killed.


Meanwhile, Caracas said it has received "proof of life" of 10 hostages held by FARC, in a hint of a possible new release – six have been freed this year to Chavez, who has assumed the role of mediator in the hostage crisis. (AFP)