The killing of a top Colombian guerilla leader in Ecuador by U.S.-backed Colombian forces sparks a crisis in the region.
WAR clouds hovered over the Andes in early March as Ecuador and Venezuela mobilised their armies against Colombia after its Army crossed into Ecuadorian territory on March 1, and killed a top Colombian guerilla leader Luis Edgar de Silva, better known as Raul Reyes, and 21 others, many of them unarmed civilians who held Mexican and other foreign passports.
Aircraft, probably unmanned, were used in the operation, which had all the hallmarks of a United States-supervised action. American media reported that the operation had an uncanny resemblance to the operations carried out in Pakistan by the U.S. forces stationed in Afghanistan. Colombian defence forces are financed and trained by the U.S. military and in recent years Israel has also chipped in by providing experts in counter-insurgency and training the right-wing death squads. Colombia receives $600 million every year as military aid from the U.S.; since the late 1990s the U.S. has disbursed more than $5 billion in aid to the country.
The U.S. State Department spokesperson justified Colombias action, terming it a response to the presence of terrorists. According to reports in the Colombian media, U.S. intelligence pinpointed Reyes location after he made a phone call to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on February 27. He was said to have made the call after the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), of which he was number two in the leadership hierarchy, released four former Colombian legislators it had held hostage for more than seven years. Chavez vehemently denied any such conversation with Reyes.
Colombian Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos said five smart bombs of the type used by the U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan were used to eliminate Reyes. Santos said his forces had used weapons that Latin American forces do not have. Colombia hosts 1,400 U.S. soldiers and military contractors and also has five U.S.-operated radar sites. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, in an address to his people, said Colombias act was a gross violation of Ecuadors sovereignty and warned that such actions could turn the region into another Middle East.
Reyes killing is a serious setback to the efforts being made to end the four-decade-old strife in Colombia. The Colombian government initially claimed that Reyes and the others were killed by troops in battle while they were crossing into Ecuadorian territory. Reyes, a committed Marxist, was a key negotiator with representatives of foreign governments in the widely publicised release, in recent months, of high-profile prisoners held by FARC, which is the largest Colombian guerilla group.
In 2001, Reyes made an extensive tour of Europe and strengthened ties with many European governments and civil-society groups. He always argued for the exchange of prisoners, calling it a necessary step that would pave the way for a negotiated settlement of the long-running conflict. Thousands of FARC supporters have been languishing in Colombian prisons for years. Chavez, while describing the guerilla leaders assassination as a cold-blooded murder, hailed Reyes as a true and good revolutionary.
Rafael Correa indicated in his address that Reyes was targeted at a time when FARC was engaged in discussions on the release of Ingrid Betancourt, a hostage, who holds dual French-Colombian nationality, and three U.S. military contractors. While Betancourt had been kidnapped more than six years ago when she was campaigning for the Colombian presidency, the Americans were captured by FARC a few years ago.
The civil war in Colombia has been the longest-running on the continent and is one of the prime sources of instability in the region. Besides spawning a lucrative drug trade and narco-terrorism, the conflict has created a serious refugee problem. The Colombian Army, acting in alliance with right-wing paramilitary squads, has driven millions of Colombians from their land and a large number of these people have taken refuge in Ecuador, one of the less-developed Andean nations.
Interestingly, more than 75 members of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez close circle have been under investigation for their close links with the paramilitary groups. Foreign Minister Maria Consuelo Araujo was forced to resign in February last year when her brother was arrested on charges of supervising the killing of thousands of peasants. Uribes secret police chief was jailed last year for providing a hit-list of trade unionists and activists to the paramilitaries, who then eliminated them. The current Army chief has been accused of extensive collaboration with right-wing death squads.
Many of Uribes domestic critics say that the latest incidents are an attempt on his part to divert peoples attention from the serious scandal that threatens to embroil his presidency.
Ecuador, on its part, has been cooperating with Colombia in the ongoing efforts to root out guerilla camps along their common border. The calls for a political settlement of the conflict have got louder in recent months. There is growing support for Chavezs call for an internationally mediated settlement of the conflict.
Chavez has suggested that FARC and the smaller left-wing guerilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), be classified as belligerent forces instead of terrorist. He said such a move could be the first step towards peace in Colombia. After the September 11, 2001, terror attacks in the U.S., Uribe is said to have persuaded U.S. President George W. Bush, his close friend, to put FARC on the list of terrorist organisations. Chavez, speaking on his weekly television programme, said that if it was necessary to have a terrorist list, then the U.S. government should head that list for its illegal invasion of Iraq and the massacre of civilians there.
The blatant act of aggression committed by Colombia evoked international outrage. Almost all the countries in the region condemned Uribes government. In solidarity with Ecuador, its neighbours such as Venezuela and Nicaragua cut off diplomatic relations with Colombia. Chavez warned Uribe that there would be war if Colombian forces ever crossed into Venezuelan territory under the guise of hot pursuit of guerillas.
Chiles President Michelle Bachelet said the situation of this nature demanded an explanation from Colombia to the people of Ecuador, the President of Ecuador and the rest of the region.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner expressed his disappointment at the dramatic turn of events in the Andean region. He indirectly rebuked the Colombian authorities for sabotaging the prospects of an early release of Betancourt. Its bad news that the man we were talking to, with whom we had contact, has been killed. Do you see how ugly the world is? Betancourts case has become an emotive one in France. French officials said the Colombian government was aware that France was negotiating with Reyes for her release. Two days before the massacre, French President Nicolas Sarkozy had offered to be present on the Colombian-Ecuadorian border to receive Betancourt on her release.
Uribes isolation was evident at the March 6 summit of Latin American leaders at Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. The summit, held under the auspices of the 19-member Rio Group, ended on a dramatic note with the Colombian and Ecuadorian leaders shaking hands and pledging to resolve the conflict peacefully. Uribe, after having earlier traded insults with Correa and Chavez, issued a formal apology to Ecuador for carrying out the military raid. Correa, speaking after the Rio Group meeting, said: Through dialogue we were able to overcome a very grave conflict. An unsmiling Correa, after going through the motion of shaking hands with Uribe, observed that the problem cannot be solved by an embrace. What is needed, he emphasised, was for the Colombian President to accept international mediation to resolve the problem of FARC.
The Rio Group was formed in 1986 as a political forum for the heads of Latin American states. The Group insisted that Uribe make a commitment to not repeat the acts that precipitated the latest crisis and to uphold the principle of peaceful coexistence in the region. The Colombian President conceded to this demand as well. Venezuela and Nicaragua were quick to restore diplomatic relations with Colombia, and Ecuador has agreed to send back its Ambassador but has indicated that it will not restore full diplomatic links in a hurry.
In the aftermath of the March 1 attack, Uribe and his senior officials made serious allegations against Correa and Chavez. According to Colombian officials, laptops belonging to Reyes, which they seized in the guerilla camp, contained information that documented links between FARC and the Ecuadorian and Venezuelan governments.
Another piece of information allegedly found was that FARC had accumulated 50 kg of uranium with the intention of producing a dirty bomb. Bogota also alleged that Chavez had poured $300 million into FARCs coffers. Uribe even threatened to take Chavez to the International Criminal Court.
On March 5, the Organisation of American States, despite opposition from Washington, okayed a resolution declaring the Colombian military raid into Ecuador a violation of its sovereignty.