November 28, 2009 / 4:11 AM / 10 years ago

Venezuela blasts Colombia as region talks defense

QUITO (Reuters) - Venezuela’s government on Friday blasted Colombia’s defense minister as a “crazy sniper” at a summit in Quito, where South American ministers agreed to sign a partial accord over security in the region.

The remarks came at a time of heightened tensions between Colombia and Venezuela, two Andean neighbors caught up in a simmering diplomatic dispute that is raising the risk of border violence and damaging bilateral trade ties.

Colombia had refused to send senior cabinet ministers to the UNASUR meeting of South American countries in Ecuador’s capital, citing “offenses” the country has suffered during its feud with Venezuela.

“Colombia’s defense minister stayed in Bogota and started to say things, like some crazy sniper, irresponsible, warmongering, firing shots at Venezuela,” Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro told reporters. “Why didn’t he come here to say face to face what he said today.”

Maduro’s comments came just hours after Colombian Defense Minister Gabriel Silva reiterated charges Colombian FARC commander Ivan Marquez and several commanders from the smaller ELN rebel group were taking shelter in Venezuela.

Venezuela’s President, Hugo Chavez, a fierce U.S. adversary, says a military pact signed in October between Colombia and the United States could set the stage for a U.S. invasion of his OPEC country. He calls President Alvaro Uribe a traitor to the region for signing the deal.

Washington and Bogota say the base plan will be used only for their long cooperation on anti-drug and counter-insurgency operations against rebels and drug gangs.

Venezuela and Colombia have often sparred about spillover from Colombia’s long guerrilla war and over accusations Chavez has backed FARC rebels. Both governments may be seeking to gain domestic leverage over the crisis, but Chavez has ratcheted up tensions by ordering his army commanders to prepare for war.

South American leftist leaders have said they are worried over the reach of the U.S.-Colombia base plan. But in Quito, regional foreign and defense ministers reached a partial agreement on more guarantees over the use of security deals.

“There were some advances on the question that has worried us a lot, that is the one about formal guarantees,” Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorin told reporters in Quito.

But Venezuela was joined by fellow leftist governments, Ecuador and Bolivia, who said the plan to allow the U.S. military more access to Colombian bases remained a problem and a possible threat to regional security.

Writing by Patrick Markey in Bogota; editing by Todd Eastham

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