By Charlie Devereux
CARACAS, Venezuela -- The discovery in a rebel camp of anti-tank rocket launchers that appear to have come from the Venezuelan army has heightened tensions between Venezuela and Colombia, who found themselves on the brink of war last year.
The Colombian government Monday claimed it found in a raid on a FARC guerrilla camp in the remote southeast of the country last year three AT-4 rocket launchers with serial numbers that connect them to the Venezuelan army.
The manufacturer of the weapons, Swedish company Saab Bofors Dynamics, confirmed via the Swedish Foreign Ministry that the serial numbers on the arms matched a sale it made to Venezuela in the 1980s.
The AT-4 rocket launchers are easily portable weapons that would permit guerrilla groups to attack tanks and fortified installations.
The revelation strengthens claims by Bogota that Venezuela and its allies have been actively supporting the left-wing terrorist group which has carried out a bloody insurrection in Colombia for more than 50 years, said Rocio San Miguel, President of Control Ciudadano, an NGO that monitors Venezuela's armed forces.
"This is the most serious incident to have occurred in Colombian-Venezuelan relations in the last 10 years, above all because for this type of weapon to arrive in the hands of the FARC suggests the compliance of senior military officers," she said.
"For rifles or other types of weapons to disappear and end up in FARC hands could happen in various military scenarios but for anti-tank rocket launchers to reach the FARC it is obvious that there is some kind of involvement at senior levels of the armed forces."
The Swedish government, which could also find itself accused of being complicit in selling arms to a terrorist group according to European Union laws, has made a formal request to the Venezuelan government, asking it to clarify how the weapons ended up in Colombia. San Miguel said that other countries -- such as Spain, which has ignored a request by the U.S. to embargo arms sales to Venezuela -- might review their policies in light of the new evidence.
But Venezuela's Foreign Minister, Nicolas Maduro, accused Colombia and its ally the United States of subversive motives in the accusations.
"This is part of a dirty and vulgar campaign that seeks to justify the installation of U.S. military bases in Colombian territory," he said. "They are trying to do the same as they did with Iraq when they accused it of having weapons of mass destruction, an argument that allowed the United States to invade that country and take its oil."
Venezuelan-Colombian relations reached a critical point in March last year when Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez ordered battalions of tanks to the border with Colombia. The move came in response to complaints by Ecuador that the Colombian army had raided a FARC camp a mile inside its borders. During the raid, the FARC's second-in-command, "Raul Reyes," and 16 other guerrillas were killed. For its part, Bogota claims it rescued three laptops from the scene that tie Chavez and Ecuador's President Rafael Correa with the FARC.
Documents extracted from the computers, which Interpol verified had not been tampered with by Colombian officials, appear to give evidence of economic, political and military collaboration between the guerrillas and Chavez's government. In one email transcript of a conversation between Raul Reyes and another guerrilla, "Ivan Marquez," Marquez mentions meeting with Venezuelan generals Cliver Alcala and Hugo Carvajal who promised him "20 bazookas" and even suggested "it should be more."
A videotape released earlier this month that shows a FARC leader, Mono Jojoy, claiming he contributed to Rafael Correa's 2006 presidential campaign has also added to speculation of links between the guerrillas and Latin America's left-wing alliance.
Earlier this year Chavez and his ideological opposite, Alvaro Uribe, met to discuss energy and trade matters, suggesting relations were going some way toward being repaired.
But in recent weeks that fragile diplomatic truce was broken after a U.S. Congress report blamed official corruption and a refusal to co-operate with the U.S. for a fourfold increase in cocaine smuggling through Venezuela between 2004 and 2007. The report also accused Venezuela of harboring FARC guerrillas.
Last week, Chavez said he planned to "at least double" the size and capacity of the Venezuelan armed forces and said he had spoken with Russia about buying more arms after he learned that Colombia and Washington were in talks about allowing U.S. troops to occupy four bases in Colombia to help with the fight against narco-trafficking.
"There's a Yankee military force gathering on our left-hand flank. What does Colombia want -- that we should remain silent?" said Chavez, who is believed to have spent $9-10 billion on Russian arms in the past few years.
Tensions have certainly escalated, but Colombia, which is Venezuela's second biggest trading partner after the U.S. with commercial trade figures of $7.4 billion last year, will have to play a delicate game in order to safeguard its economy. While San Miguel believes the unearthing of the rocket launchers may see Colombia accuse Venezuela before the International Court of Justice, Colombia will have to tread carefully.
"There is still a strong element of pragmatism and economic dependence that will shape these relationships with Venezuela," said Michael Shifter, director of the Andean program at the Inter-American Dialogue. "Colombia is the country that has the most to lose -- other countries will defer to Colombia and Colombia can't risk breaking all economic ties with Venezuela."
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