Colombia Faces Border Tensions with Venezuela

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 10, 2009 | Go to article overview

Colombia Faces Border Tensions with Venezuela


Byline: Martin Arostegui, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia -- Colombia has been building up forces along its eastern border with Venezuela followingweeks of provocations by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has threatened war against Colombia for a recent agreement that allows U.S. troops to use Colombia's main military bases.

A new army division of 15,000 men has been formed to protect the 94,000-square-mile frontier region, according to a communique released by Colombia's defense ministry late last month.

The new unit will increase the combat power to confront the threat that originates from narco-terrorist groups in the east of Colombia the statement says.

The rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) have been operating across the Venezuelan border for years and are frequent targets of Colombian intelligence operations. Analysts say they think Colombia's military buildup has been spurred by recent incidents in which scores of Colombian nationals have been killed inside Venezuela.

Last month, three Colombians, including two women and an ex army sergeant, were fatally shot after being arrested by the Venezuelan National Guard near a border crossing on the Arauca River.

Venezuelan officials accused them of being paramilitary infiltrators. The Colombian government said they were working for a private security company.

Venezuelan soldiers also blew up two pedestrian bridges connecting the countries to prevent further infiltrations by Colombian spies, according to official Venezuelan statements.

Colombia's response so far has been measured.

These are calculated provocations by President Chavez, said a senior U.S. government official who spoke on condition that he not be named because of the sensitivity of the topic. Colombia hasn't been taking that bait.

In a national radio interview Nov. 27, however, Colombian Defense Minister Gabriel Silva warned that his government is prepared to act forcefully.

Colombia would never attack Venezuela, but if attacked, we will respond to win, he said.

Hercules C-130 transport planes have been flying large numbers of Colombian troops, including elite U.S.-trained counterinsurgency battalions, and large stores of ammunition and 105 Howitzer field guns to the frontier provinces of Arauca and Apure over recent days.

Naval units also have been deployed around the northern border peninsula of La Guajira, where frontier observation posts have been reinforced and surveillance flights increased, according to Colombian officers who asked that their identities not be revealed because of the sensitive nature of the deployments.

According to these sources, two high-ranking officers of the U.S. military mission in Colombia recently inspected the border region and attended the opening of the new 8th Army Division headquarters in the southern border province of Casanare.

U.S. military aid to Colombia is intended for anti-drug efforts, but Mr. Chavez frequently accuses Washington of preparing to oust him from power.

Meanwhile, Mr. Chavez has ordered 15,000 Venezuelan troops to Venezuela's border and warned that 500 new armored vehicles, including T-72 tanks, are on their way from Russia.

On Monday, Mr. Chavez said Venezuela has received thousands of Russian-made missiles and rocket launchers in preparation for a possible armed conflict with Colombia, Associated Press reported. …

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