Thursday, May 15, 2008

Ties Between Venezuela and Colombian Rebels Alleged

In March of this year, the US government stated that the possibility of ties between the government of Venezuela and the FARC were unacceptable:

The United States accused unnamed members of Venezuela's left-wing government [in March 2008] of conspiring against neighboring Colombia by supporting Marxist guerrillas.

Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon, the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America, said files discovered on a rebel chief's computer in March contained "troubling" evidence about ties between some Venezuelan officials and guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

"It will either have to commit itself to using its relationship with the FARC to promote peace or it will have to explain why members of its government are conspiring against a democratic neighbor," Shannon said in a speech in California.

Venezuela quickly denied the claims:

Venezuela insists files seized by Colombian forces during a cross-border raid in Ecuador in March indicating Caracas-FARC links, are fake.

US intelligence has recently claimed the files retrieved from the laptop of the slain FARC's second-in-command Raul Reyes showed strong ties between Caracas and the FARC guerrillas.

"We don't recognize the validity of any of these documents," Venezuelan Ambassador to the United States Bernardo Alvarez said, AFP reported citing an article appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Friday.

"They are false, and an attempt to discredit the Venezuelan Government," he added.

Following the March 1 attack of a FARC camp in Ecuador by Colombian forces, Bogota claimed it had found files showing ties between the rebels, Venezuela and Ecuador.

Yesterday, the contents of the files were released:

High-ranking officials in Venezuela offered to help Colombian guerrillas obtain surface-to-air missiles meant to change the balance of power in their war with the Colombian government, according to internal rebel documents.

Venezuelan officials served as middlemen with Australian arms dealers and agreed to help the rebel commanders travel to the Middle East to receive missile training, according to files on computer hard drives seized by Colombian authorities and shown to The Washington Post. In interviews, Colombian officials said they have no evidence that the guerrillas obtained the antiaircraft missiles but added that Venezuelan authorities appear to have provided light arms, thousands of rounds of ammunition and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

The disclosures have already started to reverberate in the Bush administration and among Latin America policymakers on Capitol Hill, where a small group of Republicans has proposed classifying Venezuela, a major oil exporter to the United States, as a state sponsor of terrorism. The United States and Europe long ago blacklisted the rebel organization, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as a terrorist group.

At Colombia's request, Interpol, the international police agency, has completed an extensive forensic analysis on the hard drives, which were confiscated in an army raid on a rebel camp on March 1. On Thursday, Interpol is expected to announce that there is no evidence that anyone tampered with the hard drives after they were seized, though the agency cannot vouch for the veracity of the rebels' claims, according to an American official knowledgeable about the study.

The documents are the latest to be released among 16,000 files and photographs being reviewed by Colombian and U.S. officials that describe meetings between FARC commanders and Venezuelan officials, including Interior Minister Ramón Rodríguez Chacín; the military intelligence chief, Gen. Hugo Carvajal; other top generals such as Clíver Alcalá; and Amilkar Figueroa, who organizes Venezuela's civilian militias.

Once again, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez rejects the findings:

President Hugo Chávez, who has publicly lauded the FARC and characterized Colombia's government as illegitimate, ridiculed the latest batch of correspondence Sunday as "imbecilic documents." He cast Colombian President Álvaro Uribe as a "manipulator" linked to drug trafficking and charged that the Bush administration is using the documents as a pretext to invade Venezuela from Colombia.

Communications Minister Andrés Izarra, speaking to a group of American newspaper editors on Tuesday in Caracas, called the findings "laughable."

"It's part of the lies that are spread around every day against what we are doing," he said.

Not everyone is backing the administration:

After a recent fact-finding trip to the region, Carl Meacham, a senior aide to Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted in a report that a hard line against Venezuela could damage trade with the United States and inadvertently strengthen Chávez's position.

Colombian officials have also debated the ramifications of a tough stance, since it could endanger $6.5 billion in annual trade with Venezuela. Santos, the defense minister, said, "I want to normalize relations with Venezuela because it would be convenient for all of us." He added: "But to do that, they cannot help the FARC."

Colombian officials and former FARC guerrillas said the close ties between the group and Venezuela are not new, though officials in Chávez's government and rebel commanders have drawn closer since 2005.

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