CARACAS, Venezuela - Warning that Colombia could spark a war, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez sent tanks and thousands of troops to the countries' border yesterday and ordered his government's embassy in Bogota closed.
The leftist leader warned Colombia's U.S.-allied government that Venezuela would not permit acts such as Saturday's killing of top rebel leader Raul Reyes and 16 other Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrillas at a camp across the border in Ecuador.
"Mr. Defense Minister, move 10 battalions to the border with Colombia for me, immediately - tank battalions, deploy the air force," Chavez said during his weekly TV and radio program. "We don't want war, but we aren't going to permit the U.S. empire, which is the master [of Colombia] . . . to come to divide us."
He ordered the Venezuelan Embassy in Bogota closed and said all embassy personnel would be withdrawn. The moves push tense relations between the South American neighbors to their lowest point yet, with potentially far-reaching effects on billions of dollars in cross-border trade.
While Chavez did not say how many troops he was sending, a Venezuelan battalion traditionally has about 600 soldiers - meaning roughly 6,000 could be headed to the border.
Chavez called Colombia "a terrorist state" as he sided with the leftist rebels it has battled for decades. He said the Colombian military "invaded Ecuador, flagrantly violated Ecuador's sovereignty."
Neither Colombia's foreign minister nor the country's military leadership would comment on Chavez's latest move when pressed by reporters yesterday as they left a funeral in Bogota for a Colombian soldier killed in Saturday's raid.
Speaking in Texas, U.S. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said officials were monitoring the situation. "This is an odd reaction by Venezuela to Colombia's efforts against the FARC, a terrorist organization that continues to hold Colombians, Americans and others hostage," Johndroe said.
Chavez said he had just spoken to Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa and that Ecuador was also sending troops to its border with Colombia.