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Possible US-Colombia military deal raises regional tensions

Venezuela and Ecuador have strongly condemned the pending agreement, which would allow the US to use three bases for counternarcotics and counterinsurgency surveillance.

By Sibylla BrodzinskyCorrespondent / July 29, 2009

Trucks loaded with Colombian merchandise wait at customs for permission to enter Venezuela near the border city of La Raya, Venezuela, on Wednesday. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavesz 'froze' relations with Colombia because of a pending agreement that would give the US military broad access to several Colombian bases.

Reinaldo D'Santiago/AP

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Bogotá, Colombia

A pending agreement that would give the US military broad access to several Colombian bases is rattling already shaky relations in the Andean region, where Venezuela "froze" relations with Colombia Tuesday.

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The agreement, which is in the last stages of negotiation, would allow the US to run surveillance from three different air bases in the central Andes for both counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations.

President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela declared the agreement an affront to his country, adding that the deal was "opening the doors to people who constantly attack us and are preparing new aggressions."

Ecuadoran Security Minister Miguel Carvajal said that "increased military tensions" between Colombia and Ecuador were a possibility. The US lost surveillance capability when it ended flights out of a base at Manta, Ecuador, after that country refused to renew the lease.

John Lindsay-Poland, of the California-based Fellowship for Reconciliation, says the planned increase in US presence in Colombia "raises the stakes in the region enormously."

FARC ties to Venezuela, Ecuador?

The United States and Colombia have increasingly voiced concerns over the use of Venezuela as a transit route for Colombian drugs on their way to markets in the United States and Europe, and over drug-trafficking vessels using Pacific routes that dip into Ecuadorean territory to avoid detection.

Colombian and US officials have also fretted over the alleged ties between Mr. Chavez's and Mr. Correa's leftist governments and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a rebel army of about 10,000 fighters mostly financed by proceeds from the drug trade.

Tensions between Colombia and its two neighbors reached their peak in March 2008, after Colombia attacked a rebel base just over the border in Ecuador. Computer files found in the raid uncovered e-mails and internal communications that Colombia says prove the friendly relations.

Ecuador broke off relations with Colombia, which have yet to be restored. And Venezuela, after ordering troops to the border with Colombia in solidarity with Ecuador, only recently sent a new ambassador to Bogotá.

On Monday, the Colombian government revealed that antitank weapons purchased by Venezuela 20 years ago were discovered in a raid on a separate FARC camp. Angered by the implicit accusation that he was arming the rebels, Chavez recalled his ambassador to Bogotá, "froze" relations with its neighbor, and threatened to take measures that would hurt bilateral trade.

"The wounds are still raw" from the 2008 diplomatic crisis, says Adam Isacson, an analyst with the Washington-based Center for International Policy. "If the idea is to reduce tensions in the region, this [the US-Colombian military agreement] does the opposite," he says.

Chavez sees the mounting accusations of leniency toward drug trafficking and chumminess with the FARC as an attempt to build a case for a US-led invasion. He said last week the US Army has "plans to invade" his country from Colombia, where "a Yankee military force" is amassing.