Venezuela dispatched extra troops as part of an effort to tighten security along its border with neighboring Colombia, but officials on Monday denied that the move was linked to a heated dispute over the capture of a rebel leader in Caracas by bounty hunters paid by Colombia.
Top Colombian lawmakers, meanwhile, endorsed Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s stand in the dispute. “We’re looking for the unity that the country needs right now,” Colombian Sen. Jairo Clopatofsky, a pro-Uribe legislator, told reporters after he and other lawmakers met with the president.
The dispute — the most serious between the two nations in decades — arose after Colombia acknowledged it paid a bounty to have Rodrigo Granda, a top member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) captured in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, last month and taken to the Colombian border, where he was arrested.
Chavez recalls envoy
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez recalled his ambassador and suspended commercial ties, demanding that Uribe apologize. But Colombia’s president said he has the right to offer rewards for the apprehension of Colombian terrorists, wherever they are.
On Monday, transport trucks carrying food and fuel were backed up on the Venezuelan side of Maicao, a dusty border crossing in western Zulia state while National Guard troops checked vehicles for contraband.
“I’ve been waiting here since 10 a.m. because of the checks” by troops, said Renato Ruzardo, a trucker transporting sugarcane syrup to neighboring Colombia.
Ruzardo was allowed to cross the border five hours after arriving at Maicao, 360 miles west of Caracas.
To the south in Tachira state, which also borders Colombia, the government dispatched an additional 120 Venezuelan troops over the weekend, said Venezuelan National Guard Gen. Jaime Escalante. Escalante denied the deployment has anything to do with the dispute, and that it aims to halt the smuggling of cheap Venezuelan gasoline to Colombia.
A similar operation was underway in Zulia state, said National Guard Gen. Castor Perez, but he did not say whether additional troops had been sent to the region.
“The military situation is normal,” Information Minister Andres Izarra said at a press conference Monday.
Old tensions bubbling up
The case has brought long-simmering tensions between Colombia and Venezuela over the alleged presence of Colombian rebels in Venezuela to a boil. Uribe issued a statement late Sunday leveling Colombia’s most serious and explicit charges, accusing Venezuela of having sheltered Granda and saying other Colombian terrorists and rebel camps are inside Venezuela.
“Colombia will deliver proof to the government of Venezuela about the protection that authorities of this country provided to Mr. Granda. The sheltering of terrorists violates the sovereignty of Colombia,” Uribe’s statement said.
It said Colombia would provide Venezuela with the names of seven terrorist ringleaders hiding in that country and the location of various camps, but it did not specify when.
Chavez has denied that he tolerates the presence of FARC rebels in Venezuela and says the 1,400-mile shared border is too long to properly patrol.
Both leaders have said they’re willing to meet to defuse the standoff, though Chavez wants a bilateral meeting, while Uribe wants other regional president involved.
‘We’re waiting for an apology’
The FARC on Monday accused U.S. and Colombian authorities of having kidnapped Granda, and called on Latin American governments to back the Chavez government in the dispute. In a statement posted Monday on its Web site, the FARC also said the Uribe government was the “bird dog” of the United States, which is backing the Colombian government’s war against the rebels.
According to the Venezuelan government, Granda was abducted Dec. 13 from a Caracas cafe but Colombia did not report Granda to international authorities until Jan. 9. Granda was arrested in Cucuta, a city on the border with Venezuela, on Dec. 14.
“We’re waiting for an apology” from Colombia’s government, Izarra said.
Eight Venezuelan military officers have been arrested in the case, and Venezuelan officials say they will take legal action against Colombian authorities involved.
Colombia is one of Venezuela’s principle trade partners. Trade between the countries reached $2 billion last year, and the freeze in relations has stalled plans for a $200 million gas pipeline between the two countries.