Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez recalled his ambassador from Bogota on Tuesday and threatened to halt Colombian imports after the neighboring country said anti-tank weapons found in a rebel arms cache came from Venezuela.
Chavez also said he would sever diplomatic ties completely and seize control of Colombian-owned businesses “if there’s one more accusation against Venezuela.”
The actions ratcheted up tensions between the two countries amid Chavez’s criticism of a pending deal to increase the US military presence in Colombia, a key Washington ally in the region that has accused Chavez of helping leftist rebels. Chavez is a strong critic of US influence in Latin America.
His warning to Bogota stems from Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s complaint over the weekend that anti-tank rocket launchers sold to Venezuela by Sweden during the 1980s were obtained by Colombia’s main rebel group, the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Sweden confirmed the weapons had been sold to Venezuela’s military.
Chavez accused Colombia of acting irresponsibly, saying there is no evidence Venezuela was the source of the weapons.
In Bogota, the Foreign Ministry said Uribe and Foreign Minister Jaime Bermudez were traveling outside the country and would not comment until they returned.
Chavez threatened to halt all trade agreements with Uribe’s government and find new suppliers to replace imports from Colombia.
Venezuela and Colombia share some US$6 billion in annual trade.
Among goods imported from Colombia are milk and other food items that periodically become scarce in Venezuela because of government-imposed price controls.
“We can get them from any other country,” Chavez said.
Chavez also raised the possibility of shutting down a 224km pipeline that carries up to 8.5 million cubic meters of natural gas daily from Colombia to oil installations in western Venezuela.
“The gas that comes from Colombia isn’t indispensable for us. We could shut down that gas pipeline,” he said.
Colombian officials have long alleged that Chavez’s government aids FARC by giving senior rebel leaders refuge and allowing the guerrillas to smuggle cocaine through the country to raise money for their insurgency. Chavez has denied the allegations.
Relations between the two South American countries have been rocky in recent years. Tensions hit their low point last year after Colombia attacked a FARC camp in Ecuador.
Chavez responded by briefly dispatching troops to the 2,300km border with Colombia and temporarily pulling out his ambassador in Bogota.
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