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Venezuela vs. Colombia: Two leaders seek outside mediation

After bridge explosions, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Colombia's Alvaro Uribe agree on one thing: current conflict won't be resolved without outside mediation.

By Sibylla BrodzinskyCorrespondent, Staff writer / November 22, 2009

Members of Venezuela's National Guard patrol the Simon Bolivar bridge in San Antonio, border with Colombia, Saturday. Colombia said on Friday it will not be lured into conflict with Venezuela despite its neighbor's aggressive rhetoric and dynamiting of two border bridges.

José Miguel Gomez/Reuters


Bogotá, Colombia and Mexico City

No two leaders in Latin America mistrust each other more than leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and conservative Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

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The relationship between the Andean presidents, always tense, has been in a down-spiral since Colombia announced a plan in July to grant US troops expanded access to its bases.

But the two men have always managed to keep their barbs, even the most bellicose, rhetorical. Now, with the most recent spark – Venezuela on Thursday blew up two footbridges on the Táchira River – they might have a harder time backing down.

Colombia said Friday it will not be lured into conflict, but the stakes of a small-scale military confrontation are as high as they've been in recent times.

"Each time the incidents are graver," says Elsa Cardozo, an international relations expert at the Metropolitan University in Venezuela's capital, Caracas. "Something like the destruction of the bridges can make the situation more difficult. … We are very worried."

It was the latest in a string of incidents that led Mr. Chávez last week to tell his military to "prepare for war," to resist a possible US-led attack from Colombia, which last month signed a 10-year military cooperation agreement to give US troops expanded access to seven Colombian bases.

Leftist rebels, drug traffickers

Colombia claims that Venezuela is lax with drug traffickers who increasingly use the country as a transit point and permissive toward leftist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) who are believed to have established rear-guard camps in the neighboring country.

On Nov. 1, two Venezuelan soldiers were killed at a border checkpoint with Colombia. In September, 10 members of an amateur Colombian soccer team were kidnapped and killed near the border. Venezuela is holding three men – two Colombians and a Venezuelan – accused of spying for Colombia, and last week Colombia's intelligence agency detained four Venezuelan national guardsmen crossing into Colombia in a motorboat.

But the bombing of the bridges ratchets up the long-simmering standoff.

The Venezuelan National Guard confirmed the destruction Thursday of two suspension bridges, claiming they were illegal border crossings used by Colombian drug traffickers and right-wing paramilitaries to cross in and out of its territory.

Alfredo Rangel, an independent security analyst in Bogotá, called the blasting of the bridges an "act of calculated hostility."

The Uribe administration called it a "unilateral and aggressive act against the civilian population" and said it would take the issue before the Organization of American States and the United Nations Security Council.