August 8, 2010 / 7:17 PM / 9 years ago

UPDATE 1-Chavez urges Colombian rebels to put down arms

* Venezuela, Colombia leaders want end to diplomatic spat

* Chavez tells Colombian guerrillas to enter peace talks

* Ministers meet in Bogota after Santos inauguration (Adds details and quotes; ministers meet in Bogota; Ecuador)

By Andrew Cawthorne

CARACAS, Aug 8 (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez urged rebels in neighboring Colombia to lay down arms on Sunday and warned the new government of President Juan Manuel Santos to avoid accusations Venezuela helps the leftist guerrillas.

Though ideologically opposed, socialist firebrand Chavez and U.S. ally Santos want a new start in relations for the sake of peace in the volatile Andean region and the restoration of their annual $7 billion bilateral trade. [ID:nN07219451]

Chavez wants to meet directly with Santos, who took office on Saturday, but warned any repetition of his predecessor President Alvaro Uribe’s claims that Caracas shelters Colombian “terrorists” would torpedo the reconciliation efforts.

“Let’s be clear. If Venezuela is respected, there will be progress. If there’s lack of respect to Venezuela, nothing new or good will be possible,” Chavez wrote in a weekly column.

Venezuela broke ties with Colombia last month in the latest swing in their on-again, off-again relationship.

Despite the aggressive words from both Caracas and Bogota in recent weeks, few thought the spat would spiral into war and markets shrugged off the dispute as largely rhetoric.

The concrete issue at root — is Venezuela supporting Colombian guerrillas and allowing them to hide on its soil? — remains unresolved however.

Seeking to demonstrate his peace credentials and deflect the accusations that he has been quietly helping Colombia’s rebels, Chavez called on them to give up their decades-old armed struggle and seek a negotiated solution.

“The guerrillas should come out in favor of peace. They should release all their hostages,” he said on his Sunday TV program “Alo Presidente.” “They have no future by staying armed,” added Chavez, repeating similar past pleas.

“Furthermore they have become an excuse for the (U.S.) empire to intervene in Colombia and threaten Venezuela from there,” Chavez said, a reference to the U.S. military presence in Colombia which so irks him.

MINISTERS MEET

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, who went to Bogota for Santos’ inauguration, was meeting his Colombian counterpart Maria Angela Holguin on Sunday to work out when their bosses could meet to restore relations.

Chavez said Maduro had reported a very positive reception in Colombia. “We are very hopeful that we can start to rebuild what the outgoing Colombian government destroyed and pulverized: trust,” the Venezuelan president said on TV.

Before meeting Maduro, Holguin also held talks with Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino in an effort to smooth over another of Colombia’s messy confrontations.

Ecuador, whose left-wing government is an ally of Chavez, and Colombia are hoping to restore full relations after a controversial 2008 bombing raid against Colombian rebels across the Ecuadorean border.

The two ministers discussed re-establishing relations and cooperation on issues such as frontier development and energy.

“For us, our relations with Ecuador are very important and we want to keep on this path toward normalization,” Holguin said.

Additional reporting by Pat Markey in Bogota; Editing by Eric Beech

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