Venezuela, Colombia tensions high ahead of summit
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Sunday raised tensions with Colombia over a U.S. troop plan, accusing his neighbor of sending an army patrol over their Orinoco River border and ending a Colombian gasoline subsidy.
Chavez made his remarks on the eve of a regional summit in Ecuador, where the persistent Washington critic will try to fuel opposition to a Colombian plan to allow U.S. troops more access to seven of its military bases.
Colombia denied Chavez's charge of a military incursion after the defense ministry consulted with commanders in the border area.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a staunch U.S. ally, says the troop plan is necessary to fight drug traffickers. But Chavez claims a greater U.S. presence in the region is a direct threat to him and risks sparking war in South America.
His comments may be aimed at increasing pressure on Uribe ahead of the Quito meeting and came just hours after Colombian forces captured 11 Ecuadorean troops who had crossed over another border but were quickly sent back.
Chavez, a former paratrooper, often claims the United States wants to provoke war between Colombia and Venezuela to win access to the OPEC nation's huge oil reserves.
Speaking on his weekly television show, Chavez said he had been informed Colombian soldiers crossed the Orinoco River border in a small boat although he said the vessel had gone by the time Venezuelan troops arrived to check.
"This is a provocation by the government of Uribe, that's the Yankees there, the Yankees have started to command Colombian military forces," said Chavez, who often uses incendiary words against Colombia but then backs down.
Earlier on Sunday, Colombian soldiers handed over an Ecuadorean army patrol, which had crossed 300 yards (meters) into the Putumayo region, which borders Ecuador.
The leftist governments of Venezuela and Ecuador often have thorny relations with Colombia, especially since a Colombian bombing raid on a guerrilla camp in Ecuador last year.
Leaders from across Latin America meet in Ecuador on Monday for the inauguration of President Rafael Correa's second term followed by a summit to discuss regional integration where the base plan is expected to top the agenda along with complaints of a flawed U.S. response to a recent coup in Honduras.
Conservative Uribe is not attending, but he toured the region to drum up support for the planned increase in U.S. troops. Brazil, Chile and Peru say it is a sovereign matter, but Colombia's socialist Andean neighbors are furious.
Chavez has already taken measures against Colombia's state oil company and car exporters, and on Sunday ordered the end of a deal to sell subsidized gasoline in border regions.
"Stop the supply of (subsidized) fuel to Colombia right now, let them buy it at its real price. How can we favor the government of Uribe like this?"
He also urged companies to buy less from a trade partner with which the oil producer last year shared $7 billion of commerce. Venezuela exports oil and chemical products to Colombia in exchange for food and textiles.
Under a 2008 agreement, Venezuela sells between 50,000 and 120,000 barrels of subsidized gasoline each month to Colombia to combat rampant fuel smuggling.
Venezuela has some of the world's cheapest gasoline, which costs just a few U.S. cents to fill a large tank and makes contraband sales to more costly Colombia big business.
Chavez withdrew his ambassador from Bogota for about a week in the diplomatic spat but late on Friday ordered him back.
Colombia, the world's No. 1 cocaine producer, has received more than $5 billion in mostly military aid from Washington to fight drug traffickers and FARC rebels. The base deal is an extension of an existing military cooperation accord.
U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday denied the United States is planning to set up military bases in Colombia as part of the upgraded security agreement and said he has no intention of sending large numbers of additional troops.
The United States is in talks with Uribe's government about relocating U.S. drug interdiction flight operations to Colombia after being kicked out of neighboring Ecuador.
The plan is expected to increase the number of U.S. troops in Colombia above the current total of less than 300 but not above 800, the maximum permitted under the existing military pact, officials said.
(Reporting by Enrique Pretel in Caracas and Eduardo Garcia and Walker Simon in Quito, Writing by Frank Jack Daniel, Editing by Eric Beech)
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