(Christopher Toothaker, Associated Press)
-- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has broken diplomatic relations with neighboring Colombia, accusing the close U.S. ally of fabricating reports that Colombian rebels find safe haven inside Venezuela.
Souring already poor relations even more, Chavez said Thursday that he was forced to sever ties because Colombian officials insist he has failed to move against leftist rebels who allegedly have taken shelter on Venezuelan territory.
At a meeting of the Organization of American States in Washington, Colombian Ambassador Luis Alfonso Hoyos presented photos, videos, witness testimony and maps of what he said were rebel camps inside Venezuela and challenged Venezuelan officials to let independent observers visit them.
Chavez responded within hours, suggesting that his conservative Colombian counterpart, outgoing President Alvaro Uribe, could be attempting to provoke a war.
Neither Chavez nor his OAS ambassador directly responded to the Colombian challenge to let people visit the alleged camps. But Chavez insisted Venezuela does everything possible to prevent members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller National Liberation Army from crossing into Venezuelan territory.
In Washington, Hoyos said that roughly 1,500 rebels are hiding out in Venezuela and he showed fellow diplomats numerous aerial photographs of what he identified as rebel camps inside Venezuela.
He said Colombia's government has repeatedly asked for Venezuela's cooperation to keep guerrillas from slipping over the 1,400-mile (2,300-kilometer) border that separates the two countries. He said several rebel leaders are among those hiding in Venezuela.
"We have the right to demand that Venezuela doesn't hide those wanted by Colombia," Hoyos said, urging the OAS to investigate Colombia's claims.
OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza told reporters after the four-hour session that his organization could not mount an inspection mission without Venezuela's consent.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro announced that Chavez's government had closed its embassy in Bogota and demanded that Colombia's ambassador in Caracas leave the country within 72 hours.
Chavez's envoy to the OAS, Roy Chaderton, said the photographs that Hoyos showed didn't provide any solid evidence of a guerrilla presence in Venezuela.
Chavez suggested the photographs could be bogus, saying Uribe "is capable of anything."
The Venezuelan leader, a former paratrooper, contended Uribe could seek to spur an armed conflict with Venezuela before he leaves office next month. Colombian President-elect Juan Manuel Santos, who was visiting Mexico, declined to comment and deferred to the current administration in Colombia.
"Uribe is even capable of setting up a fake camp in one of the jungles on the Venezuelan side to attack it, bomb it and bring about a war between Colombia and Venezuela," Chavez said.
The socialist leader has argued in the past that U.S. officials are using Colombia in a broader plan to portray him as a supporter of terrorist groups to provide justification for U.S. military intervention in Venezuela. Chavez, who appeared alongside Argentine football legend Diego Maradona on Thursday, said Washington is using its alliance with Colombia to try to undermine Venezuela's efforts toward regional integration.
Laura Gil, a political analyst and columnist for the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, said she didn't expect the conflict to last very long because Chavez appeared to direct his comments at Uribe while raising the possibility that relations could be restored under Santos.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed hope the two countries will work out their difference through dialogue in a peaceful manner.
Colombia didn't appear ready to be conciliatory. After Chavez's comments, Colombia said it would also file a complaint with the International Criminal Court against members of Venezuela's government alleging collaboration with Colombian guerrilla groups and providing refuge to terrorists.
The charges would fall under war crimes and crimes against humanity, Chief Prosecutor Guillermo Mendoza told reporters after a meeting with Uribe and Cabinet members.
These are crimes, he said, "committed by armed groups that have attacked our citizens, carried out kidnappings, attacked our armed forces and, according to our hypothesis, have taken refuge in Venezuela." He did not say when the complaint would be filed.
Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos said he found it ironic that Chavez would break relations with Colombia but "not break with the FARC, which is what he should have done."
Venezuelan opposition politician Julio Borges accused Chavez of breaking off ties with Colombia in hopes of turning the public's attention from pressing problems like Venezuela's soaring inflation and rampant crime ahead of September legislative elections.
"It's another attempt by the government to try to redirect attention," Borges told The Associated Press.
Associated Press writers Luis Alonso Lugo in Washington, Vivian Sequera in Bogota and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.