Chavez says U.S., Colombia plot to kill him
MANAGUA (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez escalated a spat between Caracas and Bogota on Wednesday by accusing Colombia and its U.S. allies of plotting to kill him as the nations sparred over his ties with leftist rebels.
Colombia swiftly responded demanding the self-styled socialist show respect and halt his verbal attacks on the government of President Alvaro Uribe, who is Washington's closest ally in South America.
"In Bogota, there are American officials and Colombian military officials conspiring against Venezuela, conspiring to kill me, conspiring to start an armed conflict between Colombia and Venezuela," Chavez said during a visit to Nicaragua.
Chavez has repeatedly accused his arch-enemy Washington of plotting to assassinate him, an accusation it denies. The Venezuelan leader said Colombian officials were now cooperating with U.S. efforts against him.
Leftist Chavez, who brokered the release last week of two women hostages held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has bickered for months with Uribe over his role in mediating a swap of hostages for jailed guerrillas.
Chavez was praised after the hostages were freed, but even allies like Ecuador balked at his call to drop the FARC's terrorist label. The rebel group uses child soldiers, plants landmines and holds hundreds of hostages for political leverage and ransom as part of its four-decade-old insurgency.
The FARC, which began as a Marxist-inspired peasant army in the 1960s, is now labeled a drug-trafficking terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.
"Colombia's government calls on President Hugo Chavez to cease aggressions against our country," Foreign Minister Fernando Araujo said. "The Colombian government insists that through diplomatic channels, there can be a dialogue."
Chavez is an outspoken critic of the United States. He accuses Washington of obstructing peace in Colombia. Colombia has received billions of dollars of U.S. aid to fight rebels and cocaine traffickers.
Chavez and Uribe have managed to maintain a practical relationship despite their ideological differences. Trade between Colombia and Venezuela is almost $6 billion a year.
But after Uribe initially ended Chavez's role in hostage negotiations late last year by accusing him of meddling, the Venezuelan recalled his Bogota envoy and said he wanted nothing more to do with Uribe's government.
(Reporting by Ivan Castro in Managua and Patrick Markey in Bogota; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)