Sun, Jan 16, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Venezuela cuts off Colombia ties

`PARALYZED' Venezuela's president is demanding an apology for a Colombian attempt to kidnap a rebel; Colombia says Venezuela was harboring a terrorist


President Hugo Chavez said relations with Colombia would be put on hold until it apologizes for paying bounty hunters to snatch a senior rebel from inside Venezuela, insisting the neighboring country's actions were indefensible.

But Colombian President Alvaro Uribe offered no apologies late Friday, saying his country had a "right to free itself from the nightmare of terrorism."

The sharply worded statements came a day after Venezuela announced it had recalled its ambassador in response to Colombia's admission it paid bounty hunters to capture Rodrigo Granda, a member of the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

The dispute marked the most severe disturbance in recent years between the South American countries, which have managed to smooth over repeated disagreements stemming from border security and policies toward rebels in Colombia's 40-year-old war.

"With much pain I have recalled the ambassador in Bogota and he will not return until the Colombian government offers us apologies," Chavez said during a marathon speech to the National Assembly. "I've ordered all agreements and business with Colombia to be paralyzed."

Venezuelan officials called the Dec. 13 capture of Granda in Caracas a violation of sovereignty, saying Colombia sent police and bribed local authorities to help abduct him.

"It is unjustifiable that high Colombian officials are bribing Venezuelan authorities," Chavez told lawmakers.

Uribe later defended Colombian police in a statement from his office, saying they "explained clearly ... they have not violated Venezuela's sovereignty."

Uribe called the use of bounty hunters a "legitimate instrument" to fight terrorism and said "the United Nations prohibits member nations from providing safe haven to terrorists in an `active or passive' manner."

He also reiterated Colombia's desire to have good relations with Venezuela.

Chavez responded later Friday during the swearing-in of a state oil company board, saying he hoped "this lamentable episode may be resolved ... as soon as possible, but it doesn't just depend on us -- it depends above all on the government of Colombia."

"I hope they reflect," Chavez said.

He added the Colombian communique "practically justifies the kidnapping" and refers to Granda as a "terrorist" when "there in Colombia they have a terrorist coup-plotter" -- a reference to Pedro Carmona, who swore himself in as president of Venezuela during a short-lived 2002 coup against Chavez and is now in exile in Colombia.

"There is no justification for this attitude, and it is worrying that the government is assuming the defense of the crime," Chavez said.

Chavez said his order included the suspension of plans to build a US$200 million natural gas pipeline from Venezuela to Colombia's Pacific coast, which would allow Venezuelan fuel to be more easily shipped to Asia and the US west coast.

Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez said in a statement late Friday that Chavez's decision would not mean a break in diplomatic relations, despite the fact that Ambassador Carlos Santiago Ramirez was recalled for consultations.

"We are not closing our embassy in Bogota," Rodriguez said. He added that "talks and business" were "paralyzed."

Rodriguez called for "a clear position" from Colombia but said "we are convinced that President Uribe does not know the truth of the acts."

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