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Latin leaders rumble, make up

Colombians watch a broadcast Friday at a bus station in Medellin as President Alvaro Uribe speaks at the 20th Rio Group Summit in the Dominican Republic.

Associated Press

Colombians watch a broadcast Friday at a bus station in Medellin as President Alvaro Uribe speaks at the 20th Rio Group Summit in the Dominican Republic.

It began with a hail of insults, but ended in handshakes.

Latin American leaders meeting at a regional summit Friday buried the hatchet, appearing to end an Andean diplomatic crisis between Colombia and Ecuador over last weekend's controversial cross-border raid by Colombia against an illegal rebel camp.

It was Latin American diplomacy in the raw — and at times not at all diplomatic. It made for such good television that CNN broadcast the entire five-hour meeting live on its Spanish language channel.

The cause of the dispute was Sunday's attack in which Colombian air force planes killed 20 members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in a rebel camp less than a mile inside Ecuador.

But what emerged Friday were fundamental ideological divisions in the region, pitting Colombia's U.S.-backed right-wing government against its leftist critics. While Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua sided with Ecuador, heavyweights Mexico, Brazil and Chile took a more neutral position.

As the tense summit was transpiring in the Dominican Republic, CNN carried news that another FARC commander had been killed in a military operation, this time on Colombian soil. Ivan Rios was killed by his own security chief, who delivered his severed hand to troops surrounding the rebels.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, at one point breaking into song, blamed the whole dispute on the United States. Washington, he said, was trying to foment war between Colombia and its neighbors in order to take over his country's huge oil and gas reserves. "They have their eyes on it," he said.

But the main event was the face-off between the two heads of state directly in dispute. Colombia's president, Alvaro Uribe, tried hard to restrain his anger when he accused Ecuador of clandestine collusion with the Marxist FARC rebel group, citing documents seized from the computer of rebel chief Raul Reyes, who died in the raid.

Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, blasted Uribe's allegations, calling them a pack of lies. "These hands are not tainted with blood," he said.

Correa warned other presidents in the room that they could be the next to be bombed. Uribe interrupted him, scolding him for "cynical" use of "communist trickery." Correa shot back: "Calm down, president, calm down."

On the face of it, the border dispute has potentially explosive repercussions. Ecuador and Venezuela have poured thousands of troops to their borders with Colombia and, along with Nicaragua, have cut ties with their neighbor.

But Uribe sought to decry these military moves as a "farce," designed to mask his neighbor's embarrassment at having been caught red-handed.

Correa admitted his government had communicated with FARC members, but said it was only trying to secure the release of hostages held by the rebels. If that were the case, Uribe said, why were the contacts so clandestine?

Uribe complained his neighbors were living in the past, blinded by outdated ideology and rankled by hundreds of millions of dollars a year Colombia receives in U.S. military support.

"Drop all that Latin American infantilism of the Cold War," he said. "This is an autonomous struggle of the Colombian people." The FARC has no legitimacy compared with past revolutionary guerrilla movements in Latin America that fought to defeat military dictatorships, he added. Instead, they are simply "bandits" and "mercenaries" trafficking in drugs and death.

With that the mood changed, everyone seemingly having gotten a load off their chests.

Uribe shook hands with Correa, as well as with Chavez and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.

Diplomacy may have won out after all.

Latin leaders rumble, make up 03/07/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 12, 2008 10:59pm]
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