CARACAS, Venezuela - President Hugo Chavez on Sunday ordered thousands of troops to the border with Colombia after Colombia's military killed a top rebel leader.
Chavez told his defense minister: "Move 10 battalions for me to the border with Colombia, immediately." He also ordered the Venezuelan Embassy in Colombia closed and said all embassy personnel would be withdrawn.
The announcements by Venezuela's leftist leader pushed relations to their tensest point of his nine-year presidency, and Chavez warned that Colombia could spark a war in South America.
He called the U.S.-allied government in Bogota "a terrorist state" and labeled President Alvaro Uribe "a criminal."
The leftist leader warned that Colombia’s slaying of rebel spokesman Raul Reyes could spark a war.
“It wasn’t any combat. It was a cowardly murder, all of it coldly calculated,” Chavez said.
“We pay tribute to a true revolutionary, who was Raul Reyes,” Chavez said, recalling that he had met rebel in Brazil in 1995 and calling him a “good revolutionary.”
Chavez: Colombia 'the Israel' of region
Chavez said he had just spoken to Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa and that Ecuador was also sending troops to its border with Colombia.
“The Colombian government has become the Israel of Latin America,” an agitated Chavez said, mentioning another country that he has criticized for its military strikes. “We aren’t going to permit Colombia to become the Israel of these lands.”
Chavez accused Uribe of being a puppet of Washington and acting on behalf of the U.S. government, saying “Dracula’s fangs are covered in blood.”
“Some day Colombia will be freed from the hand of the (U.S.) empire,” Chavez said. “We have to liberate Colombia,” he added, saying Colombia’s people will eventually do away with its government.
The U.S. State Department had no immediate reaction to Chavez’s comments.
On Saturday, Chavez cautioned Uribe against similar military strikes along Venezuela’s border.
“Don’t think about doing that over here, because it would very serious, it would be cause for war,” Chavez said. “How far is President Uribe willing to go in his warlike madness?”
Chavez, who maintains warm relations with the Colombian guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, said that “it was obscene to see the smiling faces” of Colombian military commanders standing behind Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos as he announced the death of FARC spokesman Raul Reyes and 16 other rebels on Saturday.
Colombia defends incursion
On Sunday, Colombia defended its decision to carry out the raid, saying it acted in self-defense.
“The terrorists, among them Raul Reyes, have had the custom of killing in Colombia and taking refuge in the territory of neighboring countries. Many times Colombia has suffered from this situation that we must avoid to protect our citizens,” a Foreign Ministry statement said.
Ecuador has done little to try to remove the heavily armed fighters from Colombia’s conflict who cross the long, porous border into its territory.
Colombia’s military tracked Reyes’ location through an informant and bombed a camp on its side of the Ecuadorean border, where Reyes was thought to be, Santos said. Ground troops moved in but came under attack from another camp across the border in Ecuador. When the military overran that camp, they found Reyes’ body, Santos said.
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said Uribe had informed him of the raid but later announced that he was misled after Ecuadorean officials inspected a bombed rebel camp.
Ecuador: 'Airspace was violated'
“The (Colombian) president either was poorly informed or brazenly lied to the president of Ecuador,” said Correa, who called home the ambassador to Colombia for consultation and promised a diplomatic note of protest.
“Clearly Ecuadorean airspace was violated” in the bombing, Correa said.
Uribe earlier called Reyes’ death a step forward in defeating terrorism.
“Today we’ve taken another step in the process of recuperating the respect of the people of Colombia, the respect that our people deserve,” Uribe told a news conference.
Combatants in Colombia’s bitter four-decade conflict frequently cross borders with Ecuador and Venezuela, creating friction between the neighbors.
Colombia and Venezuela have been locked in a diplomatic crisis since November, when Uribe ended Chavez’s official role negotiating a proposed hostages-for-prisoners swap.
Nevertheless, the FARC freed four hostages to Venezuelan officials last week, and they were reunited with their families in Caracas. It was the second unilateral release by the FARC this year.
Chavez has recently angered Uribe by urging world leaders to classify the leftist rebels as “insurgents” rather than “terrorists.”
The FARC has proposed trading some 40 remaining high-value captives, including former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. defense contractors, for hundreds of imprisoned guerrillas.