CARACAS (AFP) – Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez warned Colombia Saturday not to carry out a cross-border raid against Marxist FARC rebels into Venezuelan territory, saying it could spark a war.
Chavez’s remarks came hours after Colombia launched a raid in Ecuador that killed the FARC’s number two official Raul Reyes.
“President Uribe, think about it long and hard. You had better not get the idea of doing this on our territory because it would be a ‘causus belli’, cause for a war,” Chavez said in his first reaction to the raid, at an event at the Miraflores presidential palace.
“This is something very grave which is unprecedented in our lands,” Chavez adding that he telephoned his ally Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa “and we agreed to keep exchanging information.”
“The government of Colombia acknowledges having made an incursion, violating the (air) space of a neighboring country in an irresponsible way. This is worrisome,” Chavez said.
The Colombian military killed Reyes in an air strike Saturday in neighboring Ecuador, dealing a major blow to the guerrillas, officials said earlier in Bogota.
Uribe telephoned Correa to talk to him about the operation, but it was unclear if they spoke before or after the raid. Correa said he had deployed troops to the area to “verify” what had taken place.
Reyes was in a rebel camp located 1.8 kilometers (a mile) from the Ecuadoran-Colombian border when the air force began bombing shortly after midnight, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos told a news conference.
Colombian ground troops were then deployed into the guerrilla hideout to secure the area, Santos said. A total of 17 guerrillas and one soldier were killed in the operation.
“It is the heaviest blow ever dealt against this terrorist group,” Santos said.
Reyes, 59, whose real name was Luis Edgar Devia, was a union leader working for Swiss food giant Nestle in the southern department of Caqueta when he joined the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in the 1970s.
The grey-bearded, bespectacled rebel, who went on to become the FARC’s chief spokesman, donning olive fatigues and carrying a rifle, had been viewed as a possible successor to the group’s 77-year-old boss, Manuel Marulanda.
His killing was a major coup for conservative President Alvaro Uribe, who has taken a hard stance against the 17,000-strong FARC, South America’s biggest insurgency which has bedeviled successive governments since the 1960s.
It was the first time that one of the seven members of FARC’s secretariat, or leadership council, was killed in combat.
After the death of FARC’s ideological leader Jacobo Arenas in 1992, Reyes became the group’s international face, taking the group’s message abroad. In this capacity, he met with US government representatives in Costa Rica in 1997.
Pro-government lawmakers and the country’s influential Roman Catholic Church expressed hope that his death would prompt the FARC to release its hostages and negotiate a peace agreement.
“The FARC must seriously begin a peace process that puts an end to this long nightmare that Colombia has experienced,” said Monsignor Fabian Marulanda, secretary of the Colombian Episcopal Conference.
Reyes’s death came three days after the FARC unilaterally released four former lawmakers who had been held hostage for years, handing them to the Venezuelan government and the Red Cross in a snub to Uribe.
They were among a group of 43 high-profile hostages, including three Americans and French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, whom the FARC want to swap for 500 rebels held in prison.