December 20, 2009 / 4:03 PM / 9 years ago

Tensions escalate between Colombia and Venezuela

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia said it is preparing to defend against a possible foreign military attack amid growing tensions with neighboring Venezuela, while Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said on Sunday Colombia would regret any actions that hurt his country.

Without specifically accusing Venezuela, Colombian Defense Minister Gabriel Silva was quoted as saying on Sunday that his country was preparing a strategy to ward off any attack.

Colombia, a close ally of the United States, and Venezuela, whose leader Chavez is one of the most strident critics of the United States in Latin America, are locked in a growing political and trade dispute. Chavez, an outspoken socialist, accuses the United States of planning to invade Venezuela with the help of Colombia, a charge the United States denies.

The two Andean countries almost went to war in 1987 in a dispute over a maritime border in the Caribbean Gulf.

Chavez ordered tanks to the Colombian border in 2008 after Colombia raided a rebel base over the frontier inside Ecuador. Chavez ally President Rafael Correa condemned the raid as an aggression. Tensions eased after a summit a week later.

“In Colombia, we have concentrated on the internal threat. But the risk is growing because what has been clearly and directly presented is an eventual action against Colombia from outside,” Silva told El Tiempo newspaper.

Colombia for decades has struggled to subdue Marxist rebels profiting from the cocaine trade inside the country.

“Colombia was not used to thinking about this eventuality in its foreign policy and defense strategy. Unfortunately now we have to put this variable on the map. There is a risk of a foreign aggression,” Silva said.

Colombia last week activated seven new army battalions, including two along the Venezuelan frontier.

‘YOU’LL REGRET IT’

Chavez on November 8 told Venezuelan troops to be ready for a possible war with Colombia and restricted Colombian imports to protest an agreement allowing U.S. troops more access to Colombian bases, an accord he says threatens his OPEC nation.

“We are not preparing any aggression against Colombia or against anybody,” Chavez said on his Sunday television show.

But he said his country would be prepared for any attack. He called Colombia’s government a declared enemy of Venezuela.

“Believe me, bourgeois of Colombia, if you hurt Venezuela you’ll regret it. We are not unarmed. We do not have our arms crossed,” Chavez said.

Chavez last week accused the Netherlands of aggressive behavior for allowing the U.S. military access to airfields in the self-governed Dutch Antilles and Aruba.

On Sunday, Chavez said the United States was spying on his government with unmanned drones that fly from Colombia as well as the islands off Venezuelan’s Caribbean coast. He called the incursions by the unmanned planes “acts of war” and ordered his air force to shoot them down if they are seen again.

Colombia has received billions of dollars in aid from Washington to fight leftist guerrillas and drug traffickers. President Alvaro Uribe says the recent base deal is merely an extension of existing military cooperation between the countries for operations limited to inside Colombia.

But the accord worried Latin American governments concerned over the U.S. presence.

Additional reporting by Fabian Cambero; Editing by Will Dunham

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