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13 March 2008 Edition

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INTERNATIONAL : Presidents meet in crisis talks over war moves

Rio Group offers hope after Colombian incursion


A POSSIBLE all-out war pitching Venezuela and Ecuador against neighbouring Colombia has been averted after a meeting between the leaders of the three countries during a summit of Latin American and Caribbean states last week.
The crisis had been caused by the incursion by Colombian troops into Ecuador to attack a military base of the rebel FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) in which Raul Reyes, the principal diplomat of the FARC, was killed along with 24 others on 1 March. Five students from the University of Mexico were amongst the dead and injured.  
Ecuador and Venezuela moved troops up to their borders with Colombia and a wider conflict looked possible over Colombia’s open violation of international law. However, at a meeting in the Dominican Republic last Friday, 7 March, of the Rio Group – representing 27 Latin American and Caribbean countries – the Venezuelan Minister of the Interior, Ramon Rodriquez Chacin, said that the border between Venezuela and Colombia is nearly back to normal. Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa announced that his government will “take its time” and will “co-ordinate with Venezuela” the normalising of relations with Colombia.  He said it will be “very difficult to recover the trust with the Colombian president, Alvero Uribe”.

At the meeting of the Rio Group, a declaration was agreed between the three governments that stated that “the territorial integrity of Ecuador was violated, therefore we reaffirm that the territory of a state cannot be violated or subject to military occupation or other aggressions by another state directly or indirectly, no matter what the motive”. The Colombian president promised not to repeat a similar act. In return, his Ecuadorean counterpart withdrew his demand for sanctions against Colombia.
During the meeting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said that “the road to peace and not the road to war” should be found. He pointed out that although the Colombian president had made his apologies, he was justifying the right to attack “terrorism” wherever it may be, above the right to sovereign states, and Chavez pointed out that this is a North American doctrine.
Evo Morales, president of Bolivia, said: “We cannot allow conflicts to endanger Latin American integration.”
FARC’s Commandant Raul Reyes was killed along with 24 others three kilometres inside the Ecuadorean border on 1 March.  His body, along with the body of local commander Julian Conrado, was brought back by Colombian military forces to Bogota.  Ecuador’s Defence Minister, Wellington Sandoval, reported that the attack included the use of ‘smart bombs’.  “It is a bomb that hits within a metre of where it is programmed from high-velocity aeroplanes.” He said that, to get Raul Reyes, Colombia needs “equipment that Latin American armed forces do not have”.
A delegation from the Organisation of American States will visit the area where the incursion took place to verify what has happened.

Raul Reyes was head of a FARC committee that is trying to rescue political prisoners from Colombian jails in exchange for some high-level captives held by the FARC, including Íngrid Betancourt.
A FARC statement said that Raul Reyes “died as he was trying to get into a meeting with [France’s] President Sarkozy, where progress would have been made in finding solutions to Íngrid Betancourt’s situation”. Ms Betancourt is a Colombian politician and French citizen being held prisoner by the FARC.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said: “The death of Raul Reyes is not good news. It’s not good news when the man we were talking to has been killed.”
Ecuador’s President Correa indicated in a televised address the day after the attack that he had also been in intense discussions with Reyes over the release of 12 captives. He said, “I regret to inform you that the conversations were very advanced for the freeing in Ecuador of 12 hostages, among them Íngrid Betancourt,” before adding: “It was all frustrated by the militarist and authoritarian hands. We cannot discount that this was one of the motives of the [Colombian] incursion.”
Two days before the attack, French President Nicolas Sarkozy publicly announced that he was prepared to fly to the Colombian border to personally receive a very ill Íngrid Betancourt.
Raul Reyes (real name Luis Edgar Devia Silva) had been regarded as FARC’s number two leader and the possible successor to the 77-year-old Manuel Marulanda. A former trade union leader who joined the FARC in the 1970s, he travelled around Europe in 1999 with a former Colombian president and met with the chair of the New York Stock Exchange to promote Plan Colombia which was initially designed to attract financial aid to support the peace process but evolved into a military plan that was rejected by the FARC.
In an interview in the early 1990s Raul Reyes said:
“In Colombia, the Santa Fe document [a 1989 US State Department document] continues to be implemented in such a way that the death squads continue, in the way that there is an internal war where the political opposition to the regime is assassinated, where there is a criminalisation of social protest, where anybody who protests about hunger, thirst, the desire for education or to get a fair wage, if they have a job, or if you want to work and you can’t get employed, all are considered to be a subversive.”
The Rio Group’s 27 members do not include the USA. The fact that the Rio Group provided the mechanism where this crisis could be averted where the Organisation of American States failed suggests that one by-product of the death of Comandante Raul Reyes will bring the unity of Latin America another step closer.

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