CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez severed Venezuela’s diplomatic relations with Colombia on Thursday over claims he harbors guerrillas, and he charged that his neighbor’s leader could attempt to provoke a war.
Chavez said he was forced to break off all relations because Colombian officials claim he has failed to move against leftist rebels who allegedly have taken shelter in Venezuelan territory.
Chavez acted moments after Colombian Ambassador Luis Alfonso Hoyos presented a meeting of the Organization of American States in Washington with photos, videos, witness testimony and maps of what he said were rebel camps inside Venezuela and challenged Venezuelan officials to let independent observers visit them.
Neither Chavez nor his OAS ambassador directly responded to the Colombian challenge to let people visit the alleged site of the camps.
In Washington, Hoyos said that roughly 1,500 rebels are hiding out in Venezuela and he showed fellow diplomats numerous aerial photographs of what he identified as rebel camps on Venezuelan territory.
Hoyos said that Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s government has repeatedly asked for Venezuela’s cooperation to prevent guerrillas from slipping over the 1,400-mile (2,300-kilometer) border that separates the two countries. He insisted that several rebel leaders are hiding out in Venezuela.
“We have the right to demand that Venezuela doesn’t hide those wanted by Colombia,” Hoyos said, urging the OAS to investigate Colombia’s claims.
OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza told reporters after the four-hour session that his organization couldn’t mount an inspection mission without Venezuela’s consent.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro announced that Chavez’s government had closed its embassy in Bogota and demanded that Colombia’s ambassador in Caracas leave the country within 72 hours.
Maduro said Colombia had forced Venezuela’s hand, accusing Uribe of blatantly lying about the rebel presence in Venezuela.
Uribe “has put political and economic relations into a hole,” Maduro said.
Venezuela is considering other possible measures to protest “Colombia’s aggressions against our country,” Maduro told state television without elaborating. He hinted the military might take steps to guarantee the sovereignty of Venezuela’s airspace.
Chavez’s envoy to the OAS, Roy Chaderton, said the photographs that Hoyos showed diplomats didn’t provide any solid evidence of a guerrilla presence in Venezuela.
Chavez suggested the photographs could be bogus, saying Uribe “is capable of anything.”
The Venezuelan leader, a former paratrooper, contended Uribe could seek to spur an armed conflict with Venezuela before he leaves office next month.
“Uribe is even capable of setting up a fake camp in one of the jungles on the Venezuelan side to attack it, bomb it and bring about a war between Colombia and Venezuela,” Chavez said.
The socialist leader has argued in the past that U.S. officials are using Colombia as part of a broader plan to portray him as a supporter of terrorist groups to provide justification for U.S. military intervention in Venezuela.
Chavez, who appeared alongside Argentine football star Diego Maradona, said the United States is using Colombia to undermine Venezuela’s efforts toward regional integration. He said he has doubts that Colombia’s president-elect, Juan Manuel Santos, will stray from Uribe’s U.S.-backed military policies.
“Hopefully he’ll understand that leftist and right-wing governments can live together,” Chavez said of Santos.
During a visit to Mexico, Santos declined to comment on Venezuela’s action, saying he felt it was best for the current government of Uribe to handle the situation.
Laura Gil, a political analyst and columnist for the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, said she didn’t expect the conflict to last very long because Chavez appeared to direct his comments at Uribe while raising the possibility that relations could be restored under Santos.
“Santos will have the opportunity to think about dialogue,” she said.
Gil suggested Santos may be able to repair damage and “reach some type of Venezuelan cooperation” if he respectfully expresses Colombia’s guerrilla-related concerns in private rather than making them public.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hopes Venezuela and Colombia will work out their difference through dialogue, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said in New York.
“He calls for restraint by all involved so that the situation can be resolved in a peaceful manner,” Nesirky said in a statement.
Chavez insisted Venezuela is doing everything possible to prevent members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the smaller National Liberation Army from crossing into Venezuelan territory.
“We pursue them,” he said.
Venezuela’s opposition echoed Colombia’s accusations.
“We have a government that shelters and protects Colombian guerrillas,” said Luis Carlos Solorzano of the Copei opposition party.
Solorzano said rebels have taken shelter in the states of Zulia, Tachira, Barinas, Portuguesa, Cojedes, Aragua and Apure, leaving behind their camouflage fatigues and hiding out in sparsely populated rural areas. The military and other state security forces don’t bother the guerrillas, he added.