Hugo Chávez breaks diplomatic ties between Venezuela and Colombia

President acts in response to Colombian claims that Venezuela is sheltering Farc and ELN rebels

Hugo Chávez severed diplomatic ties with Colombia yesterday after it accused Venezuela of harbouring leftist guerrillas in dozens of camps along the border.

Venezuela's president ordered a "maximum alert" on the border and warned that his Andean neighbour could provoke war. "We have no other choice but, out of dignity, to totally break our relations with our brother nation of Colombia," Chávez told state television.

Colombia had claimed that Venezuela was sheltering 1,500 rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN), which have waged a decades-long conflict with the Colombian state.

Colombia presented maps, photographs, videos and witness testimony in a presentation at a meeting in Washington of the Organisation of American States, a pan-regional body.

Its ambassador to the OAS, Luis Alfonso Hoyos, accused Chávez's administration of tolerating terrorists who murdered, kidnapped and trafficked drugs. "The continent cannot allow this nightmare to spread," said Hoyos, who also accused Venezuela's national guard of shielding the rebels from scrutiny.

He asked Venezuela to allow an international commission and journalists to inspect 87 sites where guerrillas allegedly sheltered. "They eat fried pork and get fat in order to rest before launching attacks in Colombia," he said.

Venezuela's ambassador to the OAS, Roy Chaderton, rejected the claims. "There is no evidence, no proof. These are photos taken I don't know where," he said. He did not respond to the inspection request.

Claims about infiltration along the 1,400-mile border, a porous, mountainous zone rife with smugglers and criminal gangs, have long poisoned relations between the two countries.

Chávez, a self-styled socialist revolutionary, has in the past expressed admiration for the Farc as a legitimate force but denied funnelling weapons or money. He called the outgoing Colombian president, Alvaro Uribe, "crazed" and said the US wanted him to attack Venezuela.

He announced the severing of ties in a live address in which he was flanked by Diego Maradona. The Argentina football coach, a friend who regularly visits the president, looked on but did not comment.

Chávez recalled his ambassador from Bogotá last week in anticipation of today's denunciation. Colombia then recalled its ambassador from Caracas.

Relations may improve when Juan Manuel Santos succeeds Uribe next month. The president-elect has spoken of reconciliation, an olive branch that Chávez signalled he may accept.

Some analysts said the OAS gambit was Uribe's attempt to give a farewell kick to his Venezuelan foe. Relations between the two leaders have been toxic since Colombia bombed a Farc camp in Ecuador in 2008 and allowed US troops more access to its military bases.

Chávez suspended bilateral trade last year, slowing Colombia's economic recovery and worsening inflation and shortages in Venezuela.


Rory Carroll in Caracas

The GuardianTramp

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