By IAN JAMES
The Associated Press
CARACAS, Venezuela | Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called Colombia’s president a “pawn” of the U.S. government and compared him to a mafia boss on Sunday, raising tensions in a dispute that erupted during mediation efforts to free rebel-held hostages.
Chavez reiterated accusations that President Alvaro Uribe’s U.S.-allied government tried to sabotage the release of two hostages last month, saying the captives’ accounts of a bombing by the military in the area showed Colombia aimed to “dynamite” the handover.
The two Colombian captives — Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez — were eventually released by guerrillas to Venezuelan officials in a Jan. 10 mission overseen by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Colombia halted military operations for the successful handover and has denied trying to sabotage an earlier attempt.
But Chavez accused Uribe of being deceitful, calling him a “coward” and a “pawn of the U.S. empire” during his weekly broadcast.
“That man doesn’t deserve to be president,” Chavez said. “Uribe is suitable to be a mafia boss.”
Colombia’s interior minister, Carlos Holguin, later told the television channel RCN that Chavez “has opted for the path of insults” but that “we aren’t going to let ourselves be tempted … by President Chavez’s aggressions.”
Uribe was in France, where he met on Sunday with relatives of Ingrid Betancourt, a former Colombian presidential candidate with dual French citizenship who is being held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
Uribe blamed the FARC for the collapse of an initial hostage release operation in late December, saying the rebels fooled the world by promising to turn over a 3-year-old boy they no longer held captive — Rojas’ son Emmanuel — in addition to the two women. Rojas has since been reunited with the boy, who had been living in a Bogota foster home for more than two years after the rebels brought him out of the jungle.
Chavez has been trying for months to negotiate a hostages-for-prisoners swap with the rebels. But a spat erupted in November when Uribe accused Chavez of overstepping his authority by directly contacting Colombia’s army chief.
Chavez responded by freezing contacts with Uribe but still sought to mediate with the FARC. After the two hostages were freed, Chavez pointed to their accounts as proof that Colombia’s military had tried to interfere.
Gonzalez, a former lawmaker, has said that on Dec. 31 “military operations indisputably occurred in the zone… which impeded us” from reaching a handover site in the jungle.
The Colombian government later reacted with outrage when Chavez urged world leaders to stop classifying the rebels as terrorists.
Seeing an escalating feud, former Colombian President Andres Pastrana offered to mediate between the neighboring nations, calling it “the worst moment in our relations.”
“We’ve never faced such a serious crisis, provoked by the Venezuelan government’s direct interference in our country’s internal affairs,” Pastrana told the newspaper El Tiempo in an interview Sunday.