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Colombia's raid heats up dispute over rebels

By David Adams, Times Latin America Correspondent
Published March 4, 2008

Raul Reyes, a top rebel leader, was killed when Colombian forces hit his camp in Ecuador.

A controversial cross-border raid into Ecuador by Colombian troops has ignited tensions with Colombia's neighbors amid mutual accusations of violations of sovereignty and threats of war.

At least 17 rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia are believed to have died in the nighttime attack at a clandestine guerilla camp a few hundred feet inside Ecuadoran territory. Details remain sketchy, but the raid on Saturday appears to have targeted Luis Edgar Devia, 59, one of the top three leaders of the FARC, the country's main left-wing guerrilla army that has waged war against the state for four decades. Devia was better known by his alias, Raul Reyes.

The raid highlights a long-running sore point between Colombia and its neighbors over the FARC's ability to keep its four-decades-old insurgency alive. Colombia has long complained that it gets little help from its neighbors in combating the guerilla threat, and has often hinted at collusion by the Venezuelan and Ecuadoran military.

On the one hand, the Colombian military action geographically proves the Colombian government's case. The attack is also hugely popular at home, where the FARC enjoys only marginal political support. Colombia says a search of Reyes' captured computers showed the Ecuadoran government knew and tolerated the presence of the rebel camps on its territory. Colombia also accused Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has expressed sympathy for the rebels, of providing them with $300-million in financial support.

But the raid involves some political cost for Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who is under pressure to negotiate the release of several high-profile hostages held by the FARC, including three American defense contractors and a French-Colombian former presidential candidate. Reyes had been one of the main points of contact in the hostage talks, with both the Venezuelan and French governments.

Reyes was one of the most familiar faces of FARC, acting as its chief spokesman and peace negotiator. His death was one of the biggest blows to the FARC in its long history.

Uribe has apologized to Ecuador for the incursion, saying it was a legitimate act of self-defense. But Ecuadoran officials say evidence at the scene indicates the rebels died in their sleep, suggesting the raid was not a case of hot pursuit but a premeditated incursion.

"They were bombed and massacred while they slept, using pinpoint technology that found them at night, in the jungle, for sure with the collaboration of foreign powers," said Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, hinting at U.S.-supplied satellite technology and eavesdropping equipment.

The likelihood of war remains remote, analysts say, given the vital commercial ties that bind Colombia with both Venezuela and Ecuador.

So far, Ecuador has expelled Colombia's ambassador and withdrawn its ambassador from Bogota. Chavez, who had successfully negotiated the release of six hostages in recent days, furiously described the raid as a "cowardly assassination." He has shut down Venezuela's embassy in Colombia and sent 10 army battalions to the border. In his weekly TV show on Sunday, Chavez warned Uribe: "If you decide to do this in Venezuela, pal, we'll send you a few Sukhois," referring to Venezuela's newly acquired Russian fighter jets.

The raid in the early hours Saturday was conducted with rare military precision and is seen by analysts as a sign of greater mobility and tactical skill by Colombia's armed forces, after a decade of U.S. training and finance.

Reyes' death comes on top of a series of military setbacks in recent years for the FARC, which has been forced to retreat into more remote, rural areas while its ranks have shrunk to about 10,000 due to combat deaths and desertions. It still remains by far Latin America's largest guerilla organization, controlling large swathes of jungle, while financing its military logistics with drug trafficking and hostage-taking.

[Last modified March 3, 2008, 22:48:14]

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