Latin American summit erupts in angry showdown

A summit of Latin American leaders aimed at cooling Colombia’s growing border crisis turned into an angry showdown today, with the president of Colombia accusing his Ecuadorian counterpart of having been financed by Colombian rebels.

A summit of Latin American leaders aimed at cooling Colombia’s growing border crisis turned into an angry showdown today, with the president of Colombia accusing his Ecuadorian counterpart of having been financed by Colombian rebels.

The scene at the 20-nation Rio Group summit in the Dominican Republic became so bitter that at one point Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa walked out of the seaside meeting hall. He returned after what an aide said was a bathroom break to denounce Colombian President Alvaro Uribe as a liar.

Mr Uribe said his military was forced to act because Colombia’s neighbours have provided refuge to the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which finances its anti-government insurgency through kidnapping and drug trafficking. And he said that the rebels have responded in kind, doing favours for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and helping Mr Correa get elected.

“Your insolence is doing more damage to the Ecuadorian people than your murderous bombs,” Mr Correa responded, bellowing into his microphone. “Stop trying to justify the unjustifiable!”

Mr Correa later drew loud applause when he emphasised that Colombia violated his nation’s sovereignty by sending commandos across their border to attack a rebel camp in Ecuador. He portrayed Ecuador as a victim of Colombia’s conflict, and proposed an international peacekeeping force to guard their border.

Mr Uribe’s speech was met with silence.

The crisis has steadily escalated since Saturday’s raid killed a Colombian rebel commander and two dozen others. Venezuela and Ecuador sent thousands of troops to their borders, and Ecuador and Nicaragua have broken diplomatic relations with Colombia.

The stand-off underscores Latin America’s swerve to the left in recent years - and the increasing isolation of Colombia’s centre-right government, Washington’s strongest ally in Latin America.

Mr Correa, Mr Chavez and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega are all strident leftists – and Mr Ortega was once a Sandinista guerrilla fighter who battled a US-backed dictatorship in his homeland in the 1970s. But even centrist leaders lectured Mr Uribe about the need to honour territorial sovereignty and the rule of law.

Mr Chavez struck a conciliatory tone in his speech, noting that the crisis “keeps heating up”.

He denied that he had given 300 million US dollars (£150 million) to the FARC, as alleged in a letter purportedly written by Raul Reyes, a top rebel leader killed in the attack. Mr Chavez also denied having sent arms to the rebels.

“I have never done it and will never do it,” Mr Chavez said. “I could have sent a lot of rifles to the FARC. I will never do it because I want peace.”

Then, as Mr Uribe shifted in his chair, Mr Chavez invited in the mother of French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt – the highest-profile hostage held by the rebels – and urged Mr Uribe to allow a multinational group into Colombia to facilitate another hostage release.

Mr Chavez earlier claimed without providing evidence that US planned, directed and participated in the attack. US Southern Command spokesman Jose Ruiz wouldn’t confirm or deny US participation.

The US has provided billions of dollars in military aid to Colombia and US special forces train Colombian troops. But US soldiers are barred by US law from participating in combat operations and can open fire only to defend themselves.

Mr Uribe held up documents he said were recovered from Mr Reyes’ laptop, including one in which the rebel leader told the guerrillas’ top commander about “aid delivered to Rafael Correa, as instructed”.

Mr Uribe added that he didn’t give Mr Correa advance warning of the attack on Ecuadorian soil because “we haven’t had the cooperation of the government of President Correa in the fight against terrorism”.

After Mr Uribe and Mr Correa finished trading jabs amid references to communism and terrorism, Mexican President Felipe Calderon said he was saddened by the hostility, and that such divisions threaten to set back efforts to improve the lives of Latin Americans.

Guatemala’s Alvaro Colom proposed that a reconciliation commission visit both countries. And Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez called for a return to “legality,” rejecting unilateral actions by any country.

Mr Uribe, who held up his finger while lecturing his neighbours about the danger of the FARC, suggested that Mr Correa was dishonest about his efforts to go after Colombian rebels on Ecuadorian soil.

Mr Correa shook his head, then smiled. Mr Uribe bristled.

“Regarding your smile President Correa, I tell you that we have no interest in hiding anything,” Mr Uribe snapped.

One of the rare regional voices offering support for Colombia was Salvadoran President Tony Saca, who said the Colombian government should be able to defend its citizens.

“We need to understand Colombia has the legitimate right to go after terrorists ... wherever they may be, of course without harming the sovereignty of another country,” Mr Saca said on arrival in Santo Domingo.

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