President Hugo Chavez’s government is sending 15,000 soldiers to the border with Colombia, saying the military buildup is needed to increase security, combat drug trafficking and root out paramilitary groups.
The deployment to the Venezuelan border states of Zulia, Tachira, Apure, Amazonas and Bolivar follows shootings involving troops and gunmen that have heightened tensions between the two countries. The latest came Thursday when pro-Chavez lawmaker Iris Varela said Venezuelan soldiers killed a suspected Colombian paramilitary fighter and detained five others near the border.
Venezuela has long complained that Colombia isn’t containing the violence from its decades-long armed conflict involving leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries.
Repeating a frequent charge by Venezuela, Vice President Ramon Carrizalez accused Colombia on Thursday of intentionally allowing violence to spill over the border as a means of “destabilizing” Chavez’s government.
“Colombia has been creating a pre-war atmosphere,” Carrizalez said.
Chavez has also called an agreement giving U.S. military personnel expanded access to Colombian bases a threat to Venezuela’s security, but the Venezuelan troop buildup on the frontier has nothing to do with the pact signed last week, officials said.
Colombian Foreign Minister Jaime Bermudez did not address those accusations at a news conference in Bogota on Thursday, but he acknowleged that relations are poor. He said President Alvaro Uribe’s government hopes to ease tensions “by talking, and we’re ready to do that.”
Venezuela’s government did not provide details about Thursday’s gunbattle, but Varela said authorities were searching for other militia fighters after the shootout on a farm near the border city of San Antonio in western Tachira state.
Venezuelan officials also have blamed Colombian militiamen for Monday’s shooting deaths of two National Guard soldiers near the border. Authorities arrested one suspect — a Venezuelan man — and said they were searching for three more people.
Authorities on Thursday recovered two assault rifles that were stolen from the slain National Guard soldiers, along with a body that had yet to be identified, Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami said.
Some of Chavez’s critics say the socialist leader is intentionally picking a fight with Colombia to turn public attention away from pressing domestic problems such as rampant crime, a weak economy and rationing of electricity and water.
National Guard troops detained about 100 Colombians on Thursday in southwestern Barinas state for allegedly entering the country illegally, National Guard Gen. Vladimir Padrino told the state-run Bolivarian News Agency.
Tensions have been running high in Tachira state, where the bullet-ridden bodies of 11 men, nine of them Colombians, were found last month after being abducted from a soccer field.
Carrizalez has said those victims apparently belonged to Colombian paramilitary groups, though he didn’t address suspicions they could have been killed by Colombia’s leftist rebels. (AP)