CARACAS (IPS/GIN) - Venezuela “has been invaded. We are facing a serious threat to the peace, integrity and security of this republic,” President Hugo Chavez said in a May 12 nationally broadcast radio and TV address.
He was referring to an incident involving the recent capture of 86 alleged Colombian paramilitaries near Caracas.
The government says the men are paramilitary fighters, brought in from northeastern Colombia by extremists in the anti-Chavez opposition movement to form part of a force that was to attack military installations, officials, and governing party and opposition political leaders.
The aborted plan entailed an invasion that was “thought up, planned and led by an international network—two of whose hubs are Miami, Florida and Colombia—with the complicity of unpatriotic Venezuelans,” said Pres. Chavez.
“Traitorous officers in Venezuela’s armed forces, both active and retired, helped bring the terrorists from the border to Caracas,” he added.
On May 9, authorities in Venezuela arrested 86 unarmed Colombians wearing Venezuelan army uniforms in a country house on the outskirts of the capital. Since then, 16 other Colombians have been detained; properties of members of the business community and politicians with links to the opposition have been searched; and the arrest of around 10 National Guard and Air Force officers, including four on active duty, has been ordered.
Several opposition leaders, former defense ministers and media personalities have stated that the case of the paramilitaries is “a show mounted by Chavez” to draw attention away from the opposition’s attempt to hold a recall referendum for the president before August.
President Chavez called an extraordinary meeting of the Defense Council, made up of the heads of the branches of government and the top military commanders, and declared it in permanent session recently.
Meanwhile, the verbal battles continued between Bogota, Caracas and Washington, but with some room left for cooperation and diplomacy. Colombian Ambassador to Venezuela Mariangel Holguin urged that the case be dealt with through diplomatic channels, far from the “microphones.” “We must return somewhat to the route of diplomatic and judicial dialogue, rather than so many statements in the press,” she said.
Ms. Holguín said the information received on the first 54 detainees in Caracas confirms that they are Colombian citizens, that 28 completed military service in their country, and that only one has a criminal record.
President Chavez insisted that the men are “dangerous” paramilitaries involved in Colombia’s civil war and said that he personally spoke with one of the leaders of the group, who was arrested in southwestern Venezuela as he attempted to flee.
“He is a cold man, a former professional soldier, and was apparently responsible for the execution of several who tried to escape from the camp.”
With regards to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, Pres. Chavez said, “We have been pleased to hear that he criticizes this incident, and we believe we can expect full collaboration from him.”
But, he also said he had “elements” that led him “to doubt the good faith” of Colombia’s military intelligence apparatus, and accused Colombian army chief Gen. Martin Carreno of being opposed to his government and of “brazenly lying.”
General Carreno denied allegations by Venezuelan Vice-President Jose Vicente Rangel, who said the Colombian army chief had met in March with members of the opposition who were plotting actions to destabilize the Chavez administration.
Mr. Rangel, who handles relations with the United States and Colombia in the Venezuelan government’s division of labor, said Washington “rejects the attempts to link the arrested Colombians with our government. The paramilitaries, like the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] guerrillas, are international terrorists that are financed by kidnapping and drug trafficking, and their leaders are wanted in U.S. courts.”
But, President Chavez said that before the Colombians were captured, there was a build-up of statements hostile to his government from the U.S. Defense and State departments.
“It is what we call, in military jargon, ‘preparation fire’ to heat up the climate ahead of an attack like the actions the paramilitaries were going to attempt,” said Pres. Chavez, a former paratroop commander.
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