BOGOTA (Reuters) - Venezuela and Ecuador may be rattling sabers more than preparing for war by sending thousands of troops to Colombia’s borders, but the brinkmanship in a growing Andes crisis raises the risk of conflict.
Alvaro Uribe, Colombia’s president and the recipient of billions of dollars in U.S. military aid, now faces two antagonistic fronts in the Andean region, where leftist leaders are fiercely opposed to Washington’s “imperialist” policies.
“We are not going to see a major conflagration, but you could see shots fired across the border because of accidents. Accidents can happen when tensions are this high,” said Frank Mora, a Latin America expert at the National War College.
“I would like to see how many battalions and how many tanks he (Chavez) actually sends. It is one thing what he says, it is quite another to see the evidence on the border,” he said.
The crisis was sparked when Colombian troops attacked a Colombian guerrilla camp inside Ecuadorean territory over the weekend, killing a senior FARC rebel commander.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his leftist ally in Ecuador, Rafael Correa, both quickly responded by deploying troops to their borders with Colombia.
Chavez, who says Washington wants to kill him and calls Uribe a U.S. pawn, closed down his embassy in the Colombian capital of Bogota and ordered tank battalions to the border.
Although analysts say the dispute helps Chavez distract attention away from food shortages and other problems at home, the troop deployments carry risks.
“Chavez knows that if he crosses the border, it would be a terrible mistake. This is largely theater, but it is fed by his conspiratorial hatred of the United States,” said Myles Frechette, a former U.S. ambassador to Bogota now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
Colombia has responded buy insisting that its attack on FARC guerrilla positions inside Ecuador was in self-defense. It also said it plans no new troop movements to its borders, a signal that it wants to defuse tensions.
What happens next could depend on how much Chavez believes he benefits at home from stoking tensions and how far he feels his socialist revolution is threatened by the U.S. military presence in Colombia, analysts said.
Chavez sees himself as the leader of a resurgent left-wing countering U.S. influence in Latin America, and he has beefed up his military by buying Russian fighter jets, helicopters and automatic rifles. He has even spoken about buying submarines.
U.S. officials worry those arms could upset the balance of power in Latin America, but experts say Venezuela’s military still lacks the training to make the weapons fully effective.
A $6 billion a year trade relationship between Caracas and Bogota has also kept relations on track in the past and Venezuela relies heavily on Colombian food imports.
“Chavez doesn’t have a lot to gain by going to war with Colombia. Uribe is a popular president and Colombia’s economy is doing relatively well, and his economy is not,” said Riordan Roett, director of the Latin America program at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.
Still, border incidents are not uncommon and are sensitive issues in Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador.
Neighbors complain that Colombia has failed to prevent its guerrilla conflict spilling onto their territory. Uribe counters by saying the FARC crosses into their countries in search of a safe haven.
Kidnapping, smuggling and drug-trafficking are common along the porous 1,400-mile frontier between Venezuela and Colombia, which stretches from parched desert in the north through the Andean mountains to jungles in the south.
In the 1980s, Colombia and Venezuela almost went to war over a maritime dispute and tensions briefly flared again in 2004 over the capture of a top rebel commander in Caracas. On both occasions, pragmatism prevailed and no shots were fired.
At the start of this year, a Venezuelan army patrol crossed the border and got lost in Colombia’s remote Guajira region. Colombia helped them back over the border without incident.
But in another case in May last year, Colombia said two of its undercover military officers who had infiltrated the FARC were tortured, killed and found dead inside Venezuela. It was not clear who killed the men.
“Any miscue could possibly set off a wider conflagration. Though there is no guarantee what will happen this time, in the past when tensions have escalated they eventually subside,” said Michael Shifter, at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.
“There is no appetite on the part of any of the countries’ armed forces for a regional military conflict,” he said.
Editing by Saul Hudson and Kieran Murray