Colombia demands Chavez face trial for funding Farc rebels

Daniel Howden, Deputy Foreign Editor

Latin America’s war of words heated up as Colombia said it would take the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to the International Criminal Court, accusing him of financing Colombia’s main rebel group.

The US-backed Colombian President Alvaro Uribe traded allegations of war-mongering, drug-trafficking and illegal support for insurgent groups with Mr Chavez yesterday, as hundreds of Venezuelan troops arrived at the border between the two countries.

Diplomats from Mexico, the US and Brazil offered to mediate in the region’s worst political showdown in years, pitting Latin America’s most conservative leader against its most radical president and his allies.

Facing condemnation from South American leaders for the killing of the Farc (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) spokesman Raul Reyes on Ecuadorian soil on Saturday, Colombia hit back, saying that laptops recovered from the jungle base showed that Venezuela had sent $300m (£150m) to Farc. Venezuela and Ecuador have dismissed the accusations as lies.

Brazil and Chile joined Ecuador and Venezuela in criticising Colombia’s operation more than a mile inside Ecuador’s sovereign territory, that killed Mr Reyes along with another 20 Farc guerrillas. Regional analysts cast doubt on the laptop claims, pointing out that records of financial deals were unlikely to be kept at a remote jungle base of operations. “The far-fetched allegations of laptops are almost comical,” said Larry Birns, of the Washington-based think-tank, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. “What would this stuff be doing in the jungle?”

Mr Uribe said Mr Chavez should be prosecuted for allegedly financing the Farc, citing documents in a laptop seized at the jungle camp. Colombia also accused the rebels of trying to make a radioactive “dirty bomb” but the evidence it shared with reporters failed to support that allegation, indicating instead that the rebels were trying to buy uranium to resell at a profit.

Mr Correa said the killing had ended his government’s efforts to negotiate the freedom of high-profile hostages, including the French citizen Ingrid Betancourt, held by Farc. “I am sorry to tell you that the conversations were pretty advanced to free 12 hostages,” he said. “All of this was frustrated by the war-mongering, authoritarian hands” of the Colombian government.

Venezuela’s Justice minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin noted that the raid followed several recent hostage releases, saying: “The intent of the fascist Colombian government is to hamper the handover of hostages, because that is the path of peace.”

Mr Uribe received strong support from President George Bush, who said the US would stand by Colombia in what he called its fight against terrorism. He also signalled that Washington would reward Bogota with a free-trade agreement. The White House has encouraged Colombia and the EU to refer to the Farc as narco-terrorists and bring US spending on the counter-insurgency within its broader “war on terror”. Colombia is the fifth-largest recipient of US aid – a budget spent on reinforcing the military effort against the guerrillas. “Colombia has never been a country to go to war with its neighbours,” said Mr Uribe. “We are not mobilising troops, nor advancing toward war with neighbours.”

Farc has fought a four-decade battle, with the stated aim of redistributing wealth.