Just as a thaw in icy relations between Colombia and Venezuela seemed possible, Colombia’s outgoing government openly accused its neighbor of tolerating the “continued and permanent” presence of top leftist rebel leaders.
Defense Minister Gabriel Silva presented video and documentary evidence of the presence in Venezuela of at least four senior leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, and one of the National Liberation Army, ELN, to a hand-picked group of news directors of local media Thursday.
On Friday, the government said in a statement it was considering taking the issue up before “international instances.”
It was not immediately clear how the accusations from the administration of President Alvaro Uribe – who steps down Aug. 7 after eight years in power -- would affect budding efforts by president-elect Juan Manuel Santos to patch relations with neighbors, which he has said would be a priority in his government.
But Venezuela rejected the claim, calling it a "desperate attempt" to harm relations between the two countries. It recalled its ambassador to Colombia Friday, saying that he would help "evaluate a series of measures" that Venezuela might take in response.
FARC leader at a well-established camp, Colombia says
Several accounts of one of the videos say they show FARC leader Ivan Marquez in a well-established camp 23 kilometers, or about 14 miles, inside Venezuela.
The video shows him walking around the camp followed by two white dogs, according to the accounts. A bust of Simon Bolivar, the South American independence hero who is the symbol of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s revolution, is seen near one of the late FARC supreme commander Manuel Marulanda.
Mr. Silva said the videos were shot by defectors who reinfiltrated the ranks of the rebels. Suggesting the Colombian military has real-time information on the camps, he said they knew that a meeting of about 40 rebels was being held there.
Other guerrillas in Venezuela were Rodrigo Granda, considered the FARC's foreign minister, Timoleon Jimenez, and German Briceno, Colombian officials said. ELN leader Carlos Marin Guarin and members of his organization were also there.
Talks with Chávez?
Ahead of taking power, Santos has named former ambassador to Venezuela Maria Angela Holguin as his foreign minister and had already instructed her on seeking talks with the Chávez government.
On a tour in South Florida, Santos declined to comment of the information but said he would seek “talks to resolve the problem [of] the presence of terrorists in Venezuelan territory.”
For years, Colombian officials have said privately that they knew rebels had rearguard bases in neighboring Venezuela and Ecuador. In March 2008, Colombia bombed a FARC base in Ecuadoran territory, killing a senior guerrilla leader and sparking a regional diplomatic crisis.
Despite broken relations with Venezuela, Colombia until now had held back on making open accusations against Venezuela.
Local media quoted Silva as saying the government had decided to reveal the information now because “President Uribe is worried that in this climate of rapprochement with the government of Venezuela, these realities could be forgotten.”