CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez ordered tanks and thousands of troops on Sunday to the border with Colombia, accusing it of pushing South America to the brink of war by killing a top rebel leader on Ecuadoran soil.
Denouncing Colombia's slaying of the rebel commander early Saturday, Chavez said Venezuela will respond militarily if Colombia violates its border. He ordered Venezuela's embassy in Bogota closed.
"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 divide us."
Chavez called Colombian President Alvaro Uribe "a criminal" and branded his government a "terrorist state."
In protest, Ecuador withdrew its ambassador from Bogota, ordered Colombia's top diplomat expelled and ordered the mobilization of troops to the border with Colombia.
Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, said Colombia deliberately carried out the strike beyond its borders. "There is no justification," Correa said Sunday night, snubbing an earlier announcement from Colombia that it would apologize for the incursion.
Colombian officials have long complained that Ecuador's military does not control its sparsely populated border, allowing rebels to take refuge. The same holds true for Venezuela, though Chavez denies that his country provides refuge to the FARC.
On Saturday, Colombian security forces killed senior rebel leader Raul Reyes and 16 other Colombian guerrillas at a camp across the border in Ecuador. Reyes was the public face of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia as its spokesman and considered a possible successor to the FARC's No. 1 spot.
In a statement, Colombia said FARC "terrorists" including Reyes "have had the custom of killing in Colombia and taking refuge in the territory of neighboring countries."
Correa said the rebels were "bombed and massacred as they slept, using precision technology." He said Colombia violated Ecuador's airspace when it bombed the rebel camp, which the Colombian military said was located 1.1 miles from the border.
Ecuadorean soldiers recovered the seminude bodies of 15 rebels in their jungle camp. Soldiers stood guard at the site, saying they also found three wounded women, who were evacuated by helicopter to be treated.
Colombian commandos removed the bodies of Reyes and one other rebel.
In Texas, U.S. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said of Chavez's latest moves: "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."