April 1, 2008 / 1:43 AM / 11 years ago

Ecuador sues Colombia over anti-drug spraying

QUITO (Reuters) - Ecuador said on Monday it had sued Colombia in international court over drug crop fumigation along its border in a move that could stoke tensions as the neighbors spar over a Colombian raid into Ecuador’s territory.

A March 1 Colombian attack on a Colombian rebel camp in Ecuador killed more than 20 people including a top guerrilla leader. It also frayed diplomatic ties and briefly raised the threat of war after Ecuador and Venezuela moved troops to their borders with Colombia.

Ecuador’s legal claim, which could take years to be resolved in the International Court of Justice in The Hague, will likely delay a swift solution to the dispute. Bogota rejected Ecuador’s charge.

In the latest border incident, Colombia said, an Ecuadorian army helicopter violated Colombia’s airspace on Sunday and was forced to land, but then took off and flew back into Ecuador.

Ecuador apologized for the violation later on Monday and said its helicopter had entered Colombian airspace by mistake.

Tensions between the Andean neighbors remained high after Quito accused Bogota of waging a smear campaign to tie Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa to the leftist rebels.

“Ecuador asks the court to declare Colombia’s air fumigation a violation of Ecuador’s sovereignty,” Foreign Minister Maria Salvador told reporters in Quito.

The minister demanded Colombia halt all fumigation near the border and pay the government compensation for more than seven years of spraying to destroy illicit coca crops used to make cocaine.

In a presidential statement, Colombia rejected the claim and said it had already agreed not to spray along the frontier and instead use manual eradication to attack coca crops, which it said were mainly controlled by leftist FARC guerrillas.

Colombia is the world’s top producer of cocaine. Financed by billions of dollars in U.S. aid, Bogota has used aerial spraying to attack coca crops that help fuel Colombia’s four-decade-old conflict. Its neighbors often charge Colombia fails to stop violence from spilling over its borders.

Correa and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe had eased tensions during a regional summit a week after the March 1 raid. But the later confirmation that an Ecuadorian was killed in the attack on the rebel camp has enraged the leftist leader.

“A solution to the diplomatic row seems far off for now,” said Felipe Burbano, an analyst with Ecuador’s branch of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences. “Ecuador is taking the dispute to another level.”

Colombia charges a top Correa cabinet member had links with Marxist rebels and says Ecuador does little to help protect its porous 400-mile border, which guerrillas have often crossed over to organize attacks on Colombia.

Ecuador says Colombian fumigation hurts legitimate crops and the health of Ecuadorian farmers living along the border. Colombia rejects the charges and says spraying is safe.

Additional reporting by Patrick Markey in Bogota; editing by Mohammad Zargham

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