The presidents of Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela agreed Friday to resolve their angry recriminations over a cross-border Colombian commando raid, a crisis that has brought troop movements and talk of war.
The uneasy neighbors joined in a declaration noting that Colombian President Alvaro Uribe apologized for the last weekend’s attack on a Colombian rebel base in Ecuadorean territory and that he pledged not to violate another nation’s sovereignty again.
The declaration signed by presidents of the 20-nation Rio Group also reiterated a commitment to fight threats to national stability posed by “irregular or criminal groups.”
The emergency summit was an hours-long passion play, with finger-jabbing lectures, furious speeches and pleas for goodwill.
The dramatic high point came when the host, Dominican President Leonel Fernandez, urged Uribe to shake hands with his antagonists to show his goodwill. Uribe then marched around the table and shared stiff handshakes with Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.
Correa appealed to Uribe to respect their border and never again act unilaterally to send troops into his territory to attack a rebel camp. If such an act is justified, then no border will be safe, Correa said, drawing perhaps the day’s loudest applause.
Bitter recriminations The showdown underscored Latin America’s swerve to the left in recent years — and the increasing isolation of Colombia’s center-right government, which is Washington’s strongest ally in the region.
Correa, Chavez and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, all leftists opposed to U.S. foreign policies, were the most strident in confronting Uribe. But even centrist leaders lectured Uribe about the need to honor territorial sovereignty and the rule of law.
At one point, the atmosphere became so bitter that Correa walked out of the seaside meeting hall. He returned to denounce Uribe as a liar.
“Your insolence is doing more damage to the Ecuadorean people than your murderous bombs,” Correa bellowed into his microphone. “Stop trying to justify the unjustifiable!”
Uribe said his military was forced to act because Colombia’s neighbors refused to stop offering haven to the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which finances its anti-government insurgency through kidnapping and drug trafficking. He said the rebels, in turn, have done favors for Chavez and helped Correa get elected.
Uribe held up documents he said were recovered from the laptop of a key FARC leader killed in the raid, Raul Reyes. One, he said, showed Reyes telling the guerrillas’ top commander about “aid delivered to Rafael Correa, as instructed.”
Conciliatory tone Chavez said he didn’t give Correa advance warning of the attack on Ecuadorean soil because “we haven’t had the cooperation of the government of President Correa in the fight against terrorism.”
Correa countered that Ecuador is a victim of Colombia’s conflict, and proposed an international peacekeeping force to guard the border.
Chavez tried to strike a conciliatory tone, noting that the crisis “keeps heating up.”
After Colombian planes and commandos killed two dozen people at the rebel camp, Venezuela and Ecuador moved thousands of soldiers to their borders with Colombia. Ecuador and Nicaragua also broke diplomatic relations with Colombia.
Chavez denied Uribe’s accusation that he had given $300 million to the Colombian rebels and said he never sent them weapons.
“I have never done it and will never do it,” Chavez said. “I could have sent a lot of rifles to the FARC. I will never do it because I want peace.”
Chavez then invited in the mother of French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt — the highest-profile hostage held by the FARC — and urged Uribe to allow a multinational group into Colombia to negotiated a hostage release.
The Venezuelan government later released videos of Colombian troops among the hundreds of people believed held hostage by the FARC, saying it had received “proofs-of-life” of 10 captive soldiers. Speaking into the camera, the captives urged the region’s leaders to “please intervene” to support talks on swapping the rebels’ hostages for imprisoned guerrillas.
'Major blow' N o top Colombian rebel leader had ever been slain until Reyes was killed Saturday. “The FARC has suffered a new, major blow,” Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos told reporters, calling Rios’ death “yet another demonstration that the FARC is falling apart.”
He said troops launched an operation designed to capture Rios on Feb. 17 after receiving tips that he was in a mountainous area straddling the western Colombian provinces of Caldas and Antioquia, and engaged the guerrillas’ outer security ring seven times.
Thursday night, he said, a guerrilla known as Rojas came to the troops with Rios’ severed right hand, laptop computer and ID, saying he had killed his boss three days earlier.
It was unclear what motivated the killing, but Santos said it was to “relieve the military pressure” because the rebels were “surrounded, without supplies and without communication.”
The U.S. military’s Southern Command has declined to comment on claims by Chavez that the U.S. planned, directed and participated in the cross-border attack in which Reyes was killed.
Washington has given billions of dollars in military aid to Colombia and U.S. special forces train Colombian troops, but U.S. soldiers are barred by U.S. law from participating in combat operations and can fire only to defend themselves.
One of the few leaders offering support to Uribe during the border crisis was Salvadoran President Tony Saca, who said before the meeting that “Colombia has the legitimate right to go after terrorists ... wherever they may be, of course without harming the sovereignty of another country.”
Bolivia’s leftist president, Evo Morales, accused the United States of dividing a peaceful Latin America. He said that over the decades, false labels such as “communist” and “drug trafficker,” and since the Sept. 11 attack, “terrorist,” have ruined lives and justified wars across the region.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon made a similar point, without criticizing the U.S., saying that such labels are counterproductive. He advised his fellow leaders to “leave aside the adjectives” and work to improve the lives of Latin Americans.