QUITO (Reuters) - South American foreign ministers failed to mend broken ties between Venezuela and Colombia at a meeting on Thursday but the countries agreed that irregular armed groups were hurting peace in the region.
The gathering of the 12-member Union of South American Nations was the first encounter between the two governments since Venezuela’s socialist President Hugo Chavez severed relations last week over Bogota’s charges his country harbours Colombian guerrillas in comfortable camps.
Chavez then warned that close U.S. ally Colombia was planning a military attack, and threatened to stop the OPEC nation’s oil supplies to the United States if that happened.
Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said his Colombian counterpart “gave his word” that no such attack would happen in the last week of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s government.
Flanked by the feuding nations’ top diplomats at a news conference after Thursday’s meeting, Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said the countries’ heads of state should meet in coming weeks to seek to fix the crisis.
“It was not possible to draw up an official document with everyone’s agreement,” Patino said, but added the officials present did agree that illegal armed groups were a problem.
The volatile Andean region is plagued by rebels, paramilitary fighters and drug traffickers.
“To preserve the peace in the region and harmony between us, the member states here consider it important that we have a clear commitment to avoid the presence of irregular groups that take part in illegal activities,” Patino said.
The rift is a headache for incoming Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who takes over from Alvaro Uribe on August 7 and has vowed to improve relations and revive billions of dollars in lost trade.
Colombia’s chief demand is that Venezuela act against Marxist guerrillas Bogota says launch attacks from across the border. Venezuela says it is a victim of Colombia’s decades-long war with the rebels and is calling for a start to peace negotiations between Bogota and the guerrillas.
Colombia rejects Chavez’s claim it is preparing any aggression against Venezuela, with which it was briefly united as one nation after independence in the 19th century. The two countries share a 1,375-mile (2,200-km) porous border.
“What we are interested in is efficient cooperation, said Colombia’s Foreign Minister Jaime Bermudez after the meeting. He said Unasur’s member states had come close to agreeing a preliminary text touching on how to cooperate against illegal groups. He blamed Venezuela for the failure to strike a deal.
Maduro responded by calling Bermudez a “warmonger” and a liar, who reacted to the suggestion of a peace plane “like a demon faced with holy water.”
Colombia last week presented satellite images, photos, maps and coordinates it said proved that some top rebel commanders were in a remote mountain range across the border. Bermudez again showed the dossier at Thursday’s meeting.
Chavez, an outspoken U.S. critic and standard-bearer of socialism in Latin America, calls the presentation a hoax.
Maduro said despite Venezuela’s rejection of Colombia’s claims, its armed forces had followed up on the information and would report its results in an “opportune moment.”
Uribe, a conservative who has spoken increasingly bluntly as his rule nears its end, on Thursday hit out at regional heavyweight Brazil, which has offered to mediate in the row.
Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said on Wednesday that patience was needed to resolve what he called a verbal conflict.
“The President deplores that President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, with whom we have cultivated the best ties, refers to our situation with Venezuela as if it were a case of personal affairs,” Uribe’s office said in a statement.
Chavez has seized on the alleged threat of an attack from Colombia to mobilise supporters ahead of September 26 legislative elections in which his socialist party could lose seats as the economy struggles with recession.
Analysts say an armed conflict is unlikely and markets have shrugged off the latest dispute, with the Colombian peso performing strongly and Venezuela’s benchmark Global 2027 bonds stronger in the last week.
In 2008 Colombia bombed a FARC camp in Ecuador, killing top commander Raul Reyes. Relations in the Andean region have been tense ever since. Last year Chavez froze trade with Colombia after Uribe signed a deal allowing U.S. troops access to seven military bases. Bilateral commerce is expected to drop as low as $1 billion in 2010, from nearly $7 billion in 2008.
Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Additional reporting by Nelson Bocanegra in Bogota; Editing by Eric Walsh