Rebel dispute sees Chavez sever ties with Colombia

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Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez, broke off relations with Colombia yesterday and ordered a maximum alert on his country's long border with its Andean neighbour, raising new fears of conflict in the area.

The move came minutes after Colombia presented to the Organisation of American States (OAS) what it claimed was evidence showing that 1,500 left-wing Colombian guerrillas were hiding in camps in western Venezuela, and challenged the country's officials to let independent observers visit them. Venezuela has closed its embassy in Bogota and demanded that Colombia's ambassador in Caracas leave the country within 72 hours. The border area is infested with leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitary fighters, meaning any violence could spark a larger reaction.

The two nations have been at the brink before but all-out war is unlikely because both have lost billions of dollars in bilateral trade stemming from the high tensions between their ideologically opposed leaders: the leftist Mr Chavez and Colombia's outgoing conservative President, Alvaro Uribe.

Both sides have been hoping for improved ties when newly elected Juan Manuel Santos takes over from Mr Uribe on 7 August. Mr Santos has distanced himself from the Uribe government's latest accusations and, so far, Mr Chavez has taken a wait-and-see approach with him.

In 2008, a Colombian bombing raid on a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia camp in Ecuador triggered a furious reaction from Mr Chavez, who sent troops to the border. The crisis was quickly defused, with Mr Chavez shaking hands with Mr Uribe days later – a gesture that suggested his bark is often worse than his bite.

This time, Bogota, despite having what it says is firm evidence of a prolonged guerrilla presence in Venezuela, has chosen noisy diplomacy over military action against the rebel camps, a sign Colombia may not want to provoke armed conflict.

Over the years, Mr Chavez has put his troops on alert several times, but has always insisted he would never start a conflict.