Tue, Nov 27, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Chavez puts Colombia relations `in the freezer'

FROZEN OUT The Venezuelan president was responding to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's decision to end his role as mediator in preliminary talks with FARC rebels

AP , CARACAS

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said on Sunday he is putting relations with Colombia "in the freezer" after its president ended the Venezuelan leader's role mediating with leftist rebels in the neighboring country.

The announcement drew a strong rebuke from Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who said Chavez's actions suggest he wants to see a "terrorist government" run by leftist rebels in Bogota. Uribe also suggested Chavez might want to stir up conflict to boost his image ahead of a referendum on constitutional changes at the weekend.

The spat was the bitterest yet between Chavez and the US-allied Uribe. The two had previously sought to cultivate cordial ties despite their ideological differences.

It could have serious economic consequences. The two countries are major commercial partners, with US$4.1 billion in trade last year, about two-thirds of that in Colombian exports to Venezuela.

Neither leader announced any concrete plan, but Chavez said economic relations will be hurt as a result of Uribe's actions, which he called "a spit in the face."

"I declare before the world that I'm putting relations with Colombia in the freezer because I've completely lost confidence with everyone in the Colombian government," Chavez said in a televised speech.

He later described relations between the two governments as being in "a crisis."

But he said he did not want to break ties with Bogota, saying that will depend on Colombia.

Chavez was responding to Uribe's decision on Wednesday to end Chavez's role mediating preliminary talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The talks were aimed at freeing rebel-held hostages, including three US military contractors and Ingrid Betancourt, a French-Colombian seized in 2002 while campaigning for Colombia's presidency.

Uribe's government said Chavez broke the conditions of his involvement by directly contacting the chief of Colombia's army. On Sunday, Uribe called Chavez's motives into question.

"Your words, your attitudes, give the impression that you aren't interested in peace in Colombia, but rather that Colombia be a victim of a terrorist government of the FARC," he said at a townhall meeting in the town of Calamar. "The truth is, President Chavez, we need a mediation against terrorism, not people who legitimize terrorism."

Uribe suggested Chavez's harsh criticism of his government might be part of an attempt to build up public support before a referendum on Sunday to decide changes to Venezuela's Constitution, which would allow Chavez run for re-election indefinitely.

The confrontation marks a sharp break for two leaders who have often appeared together smiling. Just last month, the two opened a natural gas pipeline between their countries, pledging to boost ties.

But on Sunday, Chavez told his ministers and military officials to "be on alert."

"Commercial relations, all of that is going to be harmed. It's lamentable," he said, warning it could affect "the businesses Colombians have here."

Chavez accused Uribe of lying and acting under pressure from the US and the Colombian "extreme right."

The spat comes amid another dispute with Spain that could affect Spanish businesses with major investments in Venezuela.

Chavez has demanded that Spanish King Juan Carlos apologize for telling him to shut up publicly during a recent summit held in Chile.

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