March 10, 2008 / 12:54 AM / 10 years ago

Venezuela restores Colombia relations, ties fragile

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela will immediately restore diplomacy with Colombia but ties are still fragile, the government said on Sunday, after this week’s resolution of a regional dispute that had raised fears of war.

Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe (L) and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (R) talk as Dominican President Leonle Fernandez looks on after they agreed to resolve the crisis set off by an attack on a FARC guerrilla camp inside Ecuadorian territory by the Colombian armed forces last week at the 20th Group of Rio Summit in Santo Domingo March 7, 2008. REUTERS/Official Summit Photographer/Handout

A Colombian raid on a Marxist guerrilla camp in Ecuador last week sparked the region’s worst diplomatic crisis in years, with Venezuela and Ecuador sending troops to their borders with Colombia, their U.S.-backed neighbor.

Leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez cut ties with Colombia but, following a handshake at a regional summit on Friday, promised to quickly withdraw the 10 army battalions he had sent to the border and normalize relations.

Colombia’s March 1 raid on a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, rebel camp killed over 20 fighters including the rebel’s second in command, Raul Reyes.

The attack came just days after the FARC released four lawmakers they had held hostage for years in a deal negotiated by Chavez, who has good relations with the guerrillas.

The foreign ministry said on Sunday that Venezuela would send diplomats, including a soon-to-be-named new ambassador, back to Bogota immediately and was ready to receive Colombian diplomats “as soon as possible.”

Despite all sides de-escalating the conflict in recent days, relations are still delicate between Colombia’s pro-Washington government and left-wing nationalists in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia.

Venezuela’s Foreign Minister, Nicolas Maduro, said the countries will need to move with caution to avoid new fractures between the ideologically opposed nations.

TIES STILL FRAGILE

“We have to be very watchful and careful so the recuperation in political relations overcomes the current fragility,” Maduro said in an interview with Reuters.

Ecuador has been reluctant to quickly patch things up with Colombia, demanding a commitment that the Colombians never again launch a raid across the borders.

“We’re the victims. Uribe must guarantee that neighbors don’t find themselves involved in this,” Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said in an interview published in an Argentine newspaper on Sunday.

Venezuela, which is an outspoken critic of the government of U.S. President George W. Bush, accused Washington of trying stir up violence in the region.

“The U.S. government was close to achieving its goal that our countries entered belligerent conflict,” Maduro said, warning that any attack on Venezuela would be met with violence.

“We are a people of peace but also a warrior people,” he said. “Nobody should interfere with us.”

The United States spends billions of dollars on military aid to help Colombia in its fight against rebels and drug cartels. Venezuela has been re-arming its military in recent years, buying fighter jets from Russia after Washington refused to repair its aging U.S.-built war planes.

The head of the Organization of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, was in Quito on Sunday and said he wanted to clear up exactly what had happened in the raid. He said he would propose mechanisms to lower regional tensions.

Nicaragua, which briefly cut relations with Bogota in support of Ecuador and has its own border disputes with Colombia, has also agreed to restore its diplomats.

Additional reporting by Helen Popper in Buenos Aires and Alexandra Valencia in Quito; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel, editing by Todd Eastham

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