Chavez sends 10 battalions to Colombian border after killing of Farc commander

· Incursion into Ecuador brings dramatic response
· Venezuela's reaction plunges region into crisis

The Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, yesterday raised the spectre of war in South America when he sent troops to his country's border with Colombia and severed diplomatic ties to protest at Colombia's killing of a guerrilla leader.

Chavez dramatically ordered 10 battalions to the frontier and the closing of Venezuela's embassy in Bogotá, with all staff to be withdrawn, plunging the region into a sudden crisis.

The self-styled socialist revolutionary branded Colombia a terrorist state and called its president, Álvaro Uribe, a criminal and a Washington puppet. The neighbouring country needed to be "liberated" from US domination, Chavez said on his weekly TV show, Aló Presidente: "Mr defence minister, move me 10 battalions to the frontier with Colombia immediately, tank battalions. The air force should mobilise. We do not want war."

Chavez spoke in response to a Colombian incursion into Ecuador on Saturday in which Raul Reyes, a senior commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, was killed.

Chavez lamented the death, a heavy blow to the Marxist rebels, and warned that a similar operation across Venezuela's frontier could trigger a conflagration. "Don't think about doing that over here, because it would be very serious, it would be cause for war," he said.

There is little prospect of immediate all-out hostilities but relations between the two governments are so toxic that an incident on their 1,370-mile border, a porous and largely lawless zone of guerrillas and smugglers, could swiftly escalate.

Chavez and Farc share a leftist affinity and admire the 19th century liberation hero Simón Bolívar. Colombian officials have long complained off the record of Venezuelan complacency about Farc bases along the border, something Chavez has denied.

But his warning to Colombia was an implicit admission that the guerrillas had bases in Venezuela just as they did in Ecuador, said Vicente Torrijos, a regional analyst. "There is nothing that could lead us to believe that Chavez's remarks will lead to a war," Torrijos said. They did, however, "further unmask Chavez and his relations to the Farc".

Venezuela has used oil revenues to re-equip and expand its armed forces in the wake of Colombia's dramatically increased military capacity under Uribe, a US ally who has made a crackdown on Farc a cornerstone of his conservative government. On Saturday, Colombia's armed forces scored a major victory when air strikes followed by a ground operation one mile into Ecuadorean territory killed Luis Edgar Devia, 59, better known as Raul Reyes, who was considered a possible successor to Farc's leader, Manuel Marulanda. At least 16 other guerrillas were killed in the raid, along with one government soldier.

Army generals reportedly welled up with tears of joy upon hearing the news, which Uribe welcomed as an advance in defeating the decades-long insurgency. "Today we've taken another step in the process of recuperating the respect of the people of Colombia, the respect that our people deserve," he said.

Analysts said losing Reyes, following the loss of other commanders, territory and momentum, could prompt Farc to rethink military and political strategy. "The military has shown them that it is capable of defeating them," said Román Ortiz, a security analyst. "Colombian military's strikes are now systematic."

In recent years, Farc has been driven to remote, rural areas and seen its ranks slashed from 17,000 to 11,000 by desertions, casualties and captures. Despite the setbacks it remains potent and still controls swathes of jungle, cocaine trafficking and an estimated 700 hostages. It was unclear what impact Saturday's raid would have on efforts to free Ingrid Betancourt, a Colombian politician whose health has deteriorated after six years captivity.

Uribe notified Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, that an operation had just concluded and cast it in terms of self-defence.

Ecuadorean officials who investigated the aftermath found that the rebels were apparently killed in their sleep and that Reyes's body had been removed, suggesting the raid was not a case of hot pursuit but a premeditated incursion.

It prompted a sharp rebuke from Correa. "The [Colombian] president either was poorly informed or brazenly lied to the president of Ecuador," he said. "Clearly Ecuadorean airspace was violated. And they entered to carry away the cadaver of Raul Reyes."

Ecuador withdrew its ambassador to Bogotá and promised a diplomatic note of protest but refrained from severing relations, a far milder response than Venezuela's, which underscored its own antipathy to the guerrillas.


Since their acrimonious split in the 19th century, relations between Venezuela and Colombia have been marked by bouts of tension and sabre-rattling, with their long, porous border providing haven for smugglers, guerrillas and intrigue. Colombia's US-backed military crackdown on Farc has allegedly flushed some of the Marxist rebels into bases in Venezuela. Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez, denies their presence, but he has called them a legitimate army, not terrorists, and repeatedly urged President Alvaro Uribe's government to seek a political accommodation with them. Venezuela, richer than its neighbour, has beefed up its military, but analysts say it is still no match for Colombian forces equipped with US weaponry and seasoned by decades of counterinsurgency fighting.

· This article was amended on Tuesday March 4 2008. In the article above we said that Venezuela was bigger than Colombia, which is not the case. This has been corrected.


Rory Carroll in Caracas and Sibylla Brodzinsky in Bogotá

The GuardianTramp

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