Venezuela ratchets up tension with Colombia

VENEZUELA and Colombia yesterday traded more insults as their simmering border dispute heightened again.

Officials from the two countries have been increasingly tetchy recently in a row that has threatened violence and damaged vital trade links.

Venezuela's foreign minister yesterday used an international summit to brand Colombia's defence chief a "warmonger" and "crazy sniper".

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The Colombians had boycotted the meeting in Quito, Ecuador, saying Venezuela was harbouring leftist rebels trying to overthrow the regime in Bogota. The Venezuelan foreign minister, Nicolas Maduro, hit out at the claims.

He said: "Colombia's defence minister stayed in Bogota and started to say things, like some crazy sniper, irresponsible, warmongering, firing shots at Venezuela. Why didn't he come here to say face-to-face what he said today?"

Maduro's comments came just hours after the Colombian defence minister, Gabriel Silva, reiterated charges that the commander of the country's main Marxist rebel force, FARC, and several leaders from the smaller ELN rebel group were taking shelter in Venezuela.

Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez, a fierce adversary of the US, says a military pact signed in October between Colombia and the US could set the stage for an American invasion of his country, a member of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) . He calls Colombia's president, Alvaro Uribe, a traitor to the region for signing the deal.

Washington and Bogota say the base plan will be used only for their long co-operation on anti-drug and counter-insurgency operations against rebels and drug gangs.

Venezuela and Colombia have often sparred about spillover from Colombia's long guerrilla war and over accusations Chavez has backed FARC rebels.

Both governments may be seeking to gain domestic leverage over the crisis, but Chavez has ratcheted up tensions by ordering his army commanders to prepare for war.

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