August 10, 2009 / 3:23 PM / 10 years ago

South America split over U.S. bases plan in Colombia

QUITO (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his allies sought to censure Colombia on Monday over a plan to host U.S. troops that has stoked diplomatic tensions but divided leaders at a regional summit.

A policeman arranges seized packets of cocaine in Cartagena June 25, 2009. REUTERS/Fredy Builes

Washington wants to relocate its hub for anti-narcotics operations in Latin America to Colombia after the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, refused to extend the U.S. mission in his country. Correa took office on Monday for a new term.

The U.S. plan to use seven Colombian military bases has fueled tension between Colombia and Andean neighbors Venezuela and Ecuador and stirred concern from Chile and regional heavyweight Brazil.

Chavez, a fierce critic of Washington, has portrayed the plan as a provocative aggression that could spark war in South America. The socialist leader has called on governments to sanction Colombia.

“Colombia ... wants to sink seven daggers into the heart of South America,” Chavez said as he arrived in Quito for the regional summit, employing imagery used last week by his ally, Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who criticized the U.S. bases plan.

Chavez accused Colombia on Sunday of sending an army patrol over their Orinoco River border and ending a gasoline subsidy. Bogota denied the incident happened.

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 leftist FARC rebels.

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.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe stayed away from the summit after wrapping up a whirlwind South American tour to ease concerns over the bases plan.

Brazil, Chile and Paraguay nuanced their criticism with acceptance of Colombia’s right to act as a sovereign nation.

Uribe drew stronger support from Peru but Bolivian leader Evo Morales has called the U.S. troop plan a betrayal.

The divide appeared to stymie South American foreign ministers from adopting a joint stand on the issue before the Quito summit. A ministerial meeting ended overnight without any explicit mention of the U.S. bases.

Fidel Castro’s brother, Raul, the current president of Cuba, will attend a Monday evening meeting of Latin American left-leaning leaders. They include Chavez, Correa and Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, ousted in a June 28 coup.

Editing by Patrick Markey and John O'Callaghan

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