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Venezuela Moves Troops To Colombia Border

Venezuela has nearly completed its deployment of thousands of troops to states along the border with Colombia, a top general said Wednesday.

"Between 85 and 90 percent of the troops are situated," Gen. Jesus Gonzalez Gonzalez told reporters at a news conference, saying soldiers were largely sent to the border states of Zulia, Tachira and Apure.

He said the movement of troops began Sunday, immediately after President Hugo Chavez ordered 10 battalions to the border in response to a Colombian military strike that killed two dozen leftist rebels on Ecuadorean soil.

Those battalions sent to the border region included approximately 9,000 men, retired Gen. Alberto Muller Rojas, a former top aide to Chavez, told The Associated Press.

Chavez also dispatched tanks and ordered an air force deployment, but the military has been tightlipped about specifics of troop movements along the border, which runs through high mountains and thick jungle.

Venezuela moved troops toward Colombia and forced cargo trucks to back up at border crossings on Tuesday as tensions increased in a war of nerves over Colombia's cross-border strike on a leftist guerrilla base in Ecuador.

Ecuador also reinforced its border with more troops and sought international condemnation of the attack, which killed 23 guerrillas including a rebel leader who had been key to hostage talks with Venezuela, France and other European countries.

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa met Wednesday with Brazil's president in an attempt to rally support for his denunciation of a Colombian raid on guerrillas hiding in his country.

He offered no proof, but told reporters in Brazil's capital he agreed with speculation that Colombian authorities killed top FARC leader Raul Reyes "to prevent a deal for the liberation of the hostages from going forward."

Reyes was a key figure in a deal being negotiated by Ecuador to help release 12 hostages, Correa said after arriving in Brazil from Peru.

Colombia has accused Ecuador of deepening ties with the guerrillas, alleging that a laptop seized at the bombed rebel camp documented high-level meetings between Ecuador's government and rebel leaders. Ecuador has denied the charge.

"If this act goes unpunished, the region will be in danger, because the next victim could be Peru, it could be Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, any one of our countries," Correa told reporters in Peru's capital, Lima.

After meeting with Silva, Correa heads to Venezuela and will then make stops in Panama, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.

President George W. Bush accused Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez of making "provocative maneuvers" and said the U.S. stands with Colombia, its right-leaning ally in a region now dominated by leftists.

Other leaders tried to dampen the war talk while saying Colombia was clearly wrong to send troops across its borders, and called for an investigation by the Organization of American States, which scheduled an emergency meeting in Washington to try to calm one of the region's worst political showdowns in years.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe said the International Criminal Court should try Chavez for "genocide" for allegedly financing the rebels, citing a reference to a $300 million Venezuelan payment to the rebels they said was found in documents in laptops recovered by Colombian commandos at the bombing scene.

But Uribe said he would not allow his nation to be drawn into open war.

"Colombia has never been a country to go to war with its neighbors," Uribe said. "We are not mobilizing troops, nor advancing toward war."

In Washington, a Colombian official apologized to Ecuador for the incursion but Ecuador responded that the apology was not enough.

Foreign Minister Maria Isabel Salvador told an OAS sesssion that Colombia must condemn the incursion, appoint a commission to investigate it and call an urgent meeting of the region's foreign ministers to be held "at the latest March 11."

Colombia's ambassador to the OAS, Camilo Ospina, acknowledged that his nation's helicopters entered Ecuador in search of the rebel camp and said the government has issued repeated public apologies to Ecuador's government for the raid "and will do so again today."

Venezuela was sending about 9,000 soldiers - 10 battalions - to the border region as "a preventive measure," retired Gen. Alberto Muller Rojas, a former top Chavez aide, told The Associated Press. Ecuador's President Rafael Correa said he was sending 3,200 more troops to its border.

Agriculture Minister Elias Jaua said Tuesday that Venezuela was closing the border to imports and exports, and would look to other countries for necessary imports. "Lamentably, we cannot depend for anything at all on a country that's in a war posture against its neighboring countries," Jaua said.

Some 300 vehicles, including trucks carrying food, shoes, ceramics and other products, were stuck waiting for permission to enter Venezuela, said Leonardo Mendez, a spokesman for a Colombian cargo transport association.

Fuel distribution was sharply reduced in the Venezuelan border state of Tachira, where the situation "worsened a lot" Tuesday at border crossings, agreed Isidoro Teres, who runs a Venezuelan business chamber the border town of Urena.

Venezuela and Colombia share annual border trade worth $5 billion, most of it Colombian exports sorely needed by Venezuelans already suffering milk and meat shortages.

In Ecuador, where trade with Colombia adds up to $1.8 billion annually, commerce and migration continued freely on Tuesday, according to Carlos Lopez, Ecuador's undersecretary of immigration.

Chavez warned Uribe that any strike on Venezuelan soil could provoke war. But his forces would be outnumbered: Venezuela and Ecuador have about 172,000 active military troops between them. Colombia's U.S.-equipped, trained and advised military has more than 250,000.

Despite the withering rhetoric of Uribe, Chavez and Correa - who called Uribe a "bold-faced liar" on Tuesday, the biggest losers from the killing of rebel spokesman Raul Reyes appeared to be hostages that might have been swapped for jailed guerrillas.

Colombia was well aware that Reyes was a key hostage negotiator with Spain, Switzerland, and France, whose president Nicolas Sarkozy has made a priority of pressing for the freedom of former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, a dual French national kidnapped by the rebels more than six years ago.

The rebels said in a communique Tuesday that Reyes died "completing a mission to arrange, through President Chavez, a meeting with President Sarkozy" aimed at securing Betancourt's release.

Sarkozy said last week that Betancourt could be near death, and that her "martyrdom is the martyrdom of France."

Correa claims his government also was working for a hostage swap, denying Colombian allegations that he was deepening political relations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. "All of this was frustrated by the war-mongering, authoritarian hands" of the Colombian government," Correa complained.

Publicly, there had been little indication of progress toward a swap of 40 high-value FARC hostages, who also include three U.S. military contractors, for hundreds of jailed guerrillas.

Saturday's raid followed the FARC's release last week of four hostages to Venezuela's justice minister, Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, who said Colombia wanted to "hamper the handover of hostages, because that is the path of peace."

The bombing not only wrecked any chance of Chavez and Correa brokering more hostage releases on Colombian soil, it also scored an intelligence bonanza when commandos seized three laptops from the camp.

Among the incriminating documents: evidence that Chavez gave the rebels $300 million for an "armed alliance," according to national Colombia's national police chief, Gen. Oscar Naranjo.

Other documents suggest rebels were seeking to buy uranium, Naranjo said, without providing details. The claim was repeated without evidence by Colombia's vice president, Francisco Santos, at the disarmament forum in Geneva.

Both Venezuela and Ecuador dismissed the allegations as lies.

Several Latin American leftist leaders have suggested the U.S. was intimately involved in executing the raid by 60 Colombian commandos that killed Reyes. U.S. satellite intelligence and communications intercepts have put the FARC on the defensive, the Colombian military has said.

But the U.S. Southern Command would neither confirm or deny American military participation on Tuesday. "We do provide intelligence support to partner nations but I can't get into details on operations," spokesman Jose Ruiz told the AP from Miami.

Venezuela later produced a laptop of its own. Also without offering any details, it said the computer belonged to a Colombian drug trafficker and contained documents implicating Naranjo in the cocaine trade.

Uribe's decision to attack Ecuadorean territory also reflected Colombia's long frustration over the rebels' ability to obtain refuge just outside its borders.

Uribe complained Tuesday that he provided Chavez with precise information on the location of FARC camps in Venezuela - one of which, he alleged, was home to rebel leader Ivan Marquez.

Chavez and Correa have denied providing support to the rebels in their territories. Correa said Ecuador has "captured" 47 rebel camps in Ecuador during his presidency - "And they ask me if we are accomplices of the FARC?"

In a communique Tuesday, the FARC announced that Reyes' leadership position would be filled by Milton de Jesus Toncel, also known as "Joaquin Gomez," a 61-year-old veteran who repeatedly defeated Colombia's military in the 1990s and later acted as a peace negotiator with one of Uribe's predecessors.

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