Venezuela blows up border bridges with Colombia

Tensions raised between two countries as troops dynamite rural walkways Venezuela claims are used by smugglers and militia

Venezuela has blown up two pedestrian bridges on its border with Colombia in the latest sign of deteriorating relations between the Andean neighbours.

Soldiers destroyed the walkways because they were being used by illegal militia and drug traffickers, said Eusebio Aguero, an army general based in the border state of Táchira.

"They are two foot bridges that paramilitary fighters used, where gasoline and drug precursors were smuggled, subversive groups entered. They are not considered in any international treaty."

However Colombia denounced the action as a violation of international law that would worsen the diplomatic crisis between the two countries.

Colombia's defence minister, Gabriel Silva, said Bogotá would lodge a complaint with the United Nations and the Organisation of American States over the "aggression".

"Uniformed men, apparently from the Venezuelan army, arrived in trucks on the Venezuelan side at two pedestrian bridges that link communities on both sides and then proceeded to dynamite them," Silva said.

The row renewed tensions that have bubbled for weeks, with Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez, recently telling his armed forces "to prepare for war" with their neighbour in order to ensure peace.

Colombia's decades-long civil war has for years spilled across its 1,375-mile border with Venezuela in the form of leftist guerrillas, right-wing militias and drug traffickers, a nexus made even murkier by contraband and corrupt local authorities.

A spike in violence on the Venezuelan side, including the abduction and murder of an amateur football team, and the drive-by shooting of two border guards, prompted authorities to reinforce the border. Destroying the bridges was a "necessary and sovereign act to curb border infiltration and drug smuggling," the economy minister, Alí Rodríguez Araque, said in Caracas.

Colombian media reported that villagers on their side of the border remonstrated with and threw stones at the Venezuelan troops in a vain effort to save the walkways. They were sited at two rural spots, Las Naves and Chicoral, near the Colombian municipality of Ragonvalia.

Full-scale war between Colombia and Venezuela was "unlikely" but there remained the potential for a bloody border clash, said one senior European diplomat. "Things are so tense it's definitely possible. Alarm bells should be ringing."

Chávez, who says he is leading a socialist revolution against US hegemony, has protested against a deal that will extend US access to Colombian military bases. He accused Colombia's conservative president, Álvaro Uribe, of being a Washington pawn.

Venezuela has cut the $7bn annual bilateral trade between the two countries, sparking protests from businesses on both sides of the border.

Analysts said both presidents hoped to reap domestic political gain by stirring patriotic sentiment. Uribe is considering running for a third consecutive term next year. Chávez, who faces legislative elections, has dipped in the polls in the wake of power blackouts, water shortages and rampant inflation.


Rory Carroll in Caracas

The GuardianTramp

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