CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez ordered tanks and thousands of troops on Sunday to the border with Colombia, accusing it of pushing South America to the brink of war by killing a top rebel leader on Ecuadorean soil.
Denouncing Colombia’s slaying of the rebel commander in a cross-border raid into Ecuador, Chavez said Venezuela will respond militarily if Colombia violates its border. He ordered Venezuela’s embassy in Bogota closed.
Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, also ordered troops to the Colombian border, withdrew his government’s ambassador from Bogota and ordered Colombia’s top diplomat expelled.
“There is no justification,” Correa said Sunday night, snubbing an earlier announcement from Colombia that it would apologize for the incursion by its military.
Chavez called the killing of rebel leader and spokesman Raul Reyes and 16 other rebels on Saturday an attack by a “terrorist state.”
“Mr. Defense Minister, move 10 battalions to the border with Colombia for me, immediately — tank battalions. Deploy the air force,” Chavez said during his weekly TV and radio program. “We don’t want war, but we aren’t going to permit the U.S. empire, which is the master (of Colombia) … to come divide us.”
Correa said Colombia deliberately carried out the strike beyond its borders. He said the rebels were “bombed and massacred as they slept, using precision technology.”
The Ecuadorean leader said Colombia violated Ecuador’s airspace when it bombed the rebel camp, which the Colombian military said was located 1.1 miles from the border.
Colombian officials have long complained that Ecuador’s military does not control its sparsely populated border, allowing rebels to take refuge.
The same holds true for Venezuela, where rebel deserters say the guerrillas routinely rest, train, obtain medical care and smuggle drugs. Chavez denies that his country provides refuge to the FARC.
In a statement, Colombia said FARC “terrorists” including Reyes “have had the custom of killing in Colombia and taking refuge in the territory of neighboring countries.”
Colombia’s police commander Gen. Oscar Naranjo said documents from a computer seized where Reyes was killed suggested Ecuador’s president is deepening relations with the FARC.
The two documents, copies of which were obtained independently by The Associated Press, were apparently written by Reyes in the past two months and addressed to the high command of the FARC. An Ecuadorean government spokesman called the Colombian claims a lie.
Ecuadorean soldiers recovered the semi-nude bodies of 15 rebels in their jungle camp, the corpses scattered around the site along with pieces of clothing, shoes, a refrigerator, guns and grenades.
Soldiers stood guard at the camp, saying they also found three wounded women, who were evacuated by helicopter to be treated. One was a Mexican philosophy student injured by shrapnel, while the other two were Colombians, said Ecuador’s defense minister, Welington Sandoval.
Ecuadorean officials found that there were two bomb attacks on the camp early Saturday, Lt. Col. Jose Nunez told reporters in the remote village of Angostura, where the bodies were found.
Colombian commandos removed the cadavers of Reyes and one other rebel.
Chavez called the raid “cowardly murder, all of it coldly calculated.”
“This could be the start of a war in South America,” Chavez said. He warned Uribe: “If it occurs to you to do this in Venezuela, President Uribe, I’ll send some Sukhois” — Russian warplanes recently bought by Venezuela.
The situation tested already tense relations between Venezuela and Colombia, though cross-border trade has not yet been seriously affected.
Chavez did not specify how many troops was sending to the border. A Venezuelan battalion traditionally has roughly 600 soldiers.
“Undoubtedly the recent actions on the part of Colombia and Venezuela’s response raise the risk for armed conflict,” said Miguel Tinker Salas, a Latin American studies professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California. “Although it is unlikely we will see military confrontations, what is clear is that Colombia has been pursuing a military solution to its own internal problem, … drawing in Ecuador and Venezuela.”
Chavez has increasingly revealed his sympathies for the FARC, and in January asked that it be struck from lists of terrorist groups internationally.
The leftist FARC has been fighting Colombia’s government for more than four decades, and funds itself largely through the cocaine trade and kidnaps for ransom and political ends.
Chavez said that with U.S. support, Colombian troops “invaded Ecuador, flagrantly violating Ecuador’s sovereignty.”
U.S Embassy spokeswoman Suzanne Hall, in Bogota, declined comment on the possibility of U.S. involvement, saying it was a Colombian government operation.
In Texas, U.S. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said of Chavez’s latest moves: “This is an odd reaction by Venezuela to Colombia’s efforts against the FARC, a terrorist organization that continues to hold Colombians, Americans and others hostage.”
How exactly Reyes was killed was not immediately clear.
Colombia’s defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, said Colombian commandos, tracking Reyes through an informant, first bombed a camp on the Colombian side of the Ecuadorean border. He said the troops came under fire from across the border in Ecuador and encountered Reyes’ body when they overran that camp.
Colombia and Venezuela have been locked in a diplomatic crisis since Uribe sought in November to halt Chavez’s efforts to mediate a prisoner swap. The FARC has since freed six hostages to delegates of Chavez, including four released last week.
The FARC has demanded that a safe zone be created in Colombia to negotiate a swap of some 40 high-value captives, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. defense contractors, for hundreds of imprisoned guerrillas.