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World News

Bush backs Colombia over Venezuela "provocation"

BOGOTA (Reuters) - President George W. Bush backed Colombia on Tuesday in an escalating Andean crisis as Venezuela moved troops to its border and Colombia accused President Hugo Chavez of genocide for supporting rebels.

Chavez has warned that war could break out after Colombian forces bombed inside a neighboring South American state, Ecuador, to kill a leading leftist rebel.

Bush weighed in on the crisis for the first time since Saturday’s raid, accusing Chavez’s “regime” of provocation and saying the superpower opposed any act of aggression that could destabilize the region. Chavez has in the past raised the specter of a U.S. attack on his OPEC nation and said he would cut off oil exports.

Bush told reporters about a telephone call with President Alvaro Uribe in which he said “America would continue to stand with Colombia.”

The conservative Uribe, whose government receives billions of dollars in U.S. military aid, threatened to take Chavez to international court for backing Colombian rebels’ “genocide.” Colombia says the raid unearthed evidence Chavez recently paid the rebels $300 million -- something Venezuela denies.

“We are not warmongers, but we are not weak. We cannot allow terrorists who seek refuge in other countries to spill the blood of our countrymen,” Uribe said.

Ecuador and Venezuela have cut diplomatic ties with Colombia in the crisis.

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Uribe also accuses Chavez’s leftist ally in Ecuador, President Rafael Correa, of supporting the rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Thousands of people have been killed or displaced by Latin America’s oldest insurgency, although the violence, bombings and kidnappings from the conflict have dropped under Uribe, making him highly popular at home.

BUSH VS CHAVEZ

The crisis in the Andes reflects a sharp political divide in Latin America, where Uribe is opposed by leftists led by Chavez, who fiercely reject what they brand as U.S. imperialism in the region.

Bush rarely refers to Chavez, and his criticism on Tuesday was sure to provoke the ex-paratrooper, who has called the U.S. president “Mr. Danger,” the devil and a donkey.

Allied with U.S. antagonists Cuba and Iran and repeatedly re-elected for spending oil wealth on the majority poor, Chavez calls Uribe a pawn in a U.S. plot to invade. Venezuela is a leading oil exporter to the United States.

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Venezuelan media showed on Tuesday the first noticeable troop movements in buses and trucks two days since Chavez ordered soldiers and tanks to the frontier.

Chavez also began restricting commercial traffic on major border crossing-points, witnesses and businesses in Venezuela said. That threatened to disrupt the $6 billion per year in trade between the neighboring states.

Despite the leaders’ brinkmanship and the risk of military missteps, political analysts said a conflict was unlikely.

Slideshow ( 26 images )

Latin American countries scrambled to defuse the crisis. Some, including diplomatic heavyweight Brazil, lined up to condemn Colombia’s attack and demand an apology for Ecuador.

But Peru, which has seen guerrilla violence spill over its border with Colombia, urged Chavez to stay out of the dispute. “We think that Colombia and Ecuador should find a solution to this problem ... and Venezuela should not add fuel to the fire,” President Alan Garcia said as he hosted Correa.

Correa was in Peru at the start a five-nation tour of the region -- including to Venezuela -- to lobby for support after a raid he says was a premeditated violation of sovereignty.

“We are going to try to resolve this matter through diplomatic and peaceful means,” Correa said in Lima. “Uribe doesn’t want peace, he wants war.”

Chile’s foreign minister said countries would take a proposal to cool the crisis to the Organization of American States, or OAS, the region’s top diplomatic body, on Tuesday.

Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Brian Ellsworth in Caracas, Maria Luisa Palomino in Lima; Writing by Saul Hudson; Editing by Patricia Zengerle

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