President Hugo Chavez told his military to be prepared for a possible confrontation with Colombia, warning that Bogota’s plans to increase the US military presence at its bases posed a threat to Venezuela.
Mr Chavez has issued near-daily warnings that Washington could use bases in Colombia to destabilise the region since learning of negotiations to lease seven Colombian military bases to the US.
“The threat against us is growing,” Mr Chavez said. “I call on the people and the armed forces, let’s go, ready for combat!”
The socialist leader warned Colombia that “Venezuela’s military will respond if there’s an attack against Venezuela”.
Mr Chavez said he would attend this week’s summit of the Union of South American Nations in Quito, Ecuador, to urge his Latin American allies to pressure Colombian president Alvaro Uribe to reconsider a pending agreement to lease military bases to US forces.
“We cannot ignore this threat,” Mr Chavez said during his weekly radio and television programme, Hello President.
Colombian officials say Venezuela has no reason to be concerned and that the US forces would help fight drug trafficking. The proposed 10-year agreement, they claim, would not push the number of American troops and civilian military contractors beyond 1,400 – the maximum currently permitted by US law.
Tensions between the neighbouring South American nations also have been heightened over Colombia’s disclosure that three Swedish-made anti-tank weapons found at a rebel camp last year had been purchased by Venezuela’s military.
Mr Chavez has accused Colombia of acting irresponsibly in its accusation that the anti-tank rocket launchers sold to Venezuela in 1988 were obtained by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Sweden confirmed the weapons were originally sold to Venezuela’s military.
Mr Chavez denies aiding the FARC. He claims the US is using Colombia as part of a broader plan to portray him as a supporter of terrorist groups to provide justification for US military intervention in Venezuela.
He said yesterday diplomatic relations with Mr Uribe’s government “remain frozen” even though he ordered Venezuela’s ambassador to return to Colombia more than a week after he was recalled.