Colombia furious as Chavez praises rebels
President Hugo Chavez, emboldened by his success in a hostage release, took the side of leftist rebels in neighbouring Colombia's decades-old civil conflict, calling the guerrillas "true armies" and asking the international community to stop classifying them as terrorists.
Colombia's US-allied government, which has made eradicating the rebels a top priority, reacted with outrage. Interior Minister Carlos Holguin said Colombia "cannot accept a request of this sort."
Chavez's defense of the rebels thrust him deeper than ever into the thicket of Colombia's conflict. He said the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the National Liberation Army "are not terrorists, they are true armies ... They must be recognized." The FARC is the hemisphere's most potent rebel force with 14,000 fighters, mostly peasants, it says are fighting for a more equal distribution of wealth. It funds itself largely through drug trafficking and the government says holds some 750 people hostage, either for ransom or political leverage.
"They are insurgent forces that have a political project," Chavez said on Friday in a marathon speech to lawmakers. "I say it even though someone could be bothered by it."
Cesar Mauricio Velasquez, a spokesman for Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, later read a statement in which he did not mention Chavez by name. He said FARC guerrillas are terrorists because they "kidnap, place bombs indiscriminately, recruit and murder children, murder pregnant women and the elderly and use anti-personnel mines that have left thousands of innocent victims."
"All that they've produced for the country is forced displacement, pain, unemployment and poverty," he said. Officials in Bogota were also upset that Venezuelan Justice Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, who led the Chavez-brokered handover on Thursday of two long-held FARC hostages, appeared to express support for the rebels.
"We are very aware of your struggle. You are the ones that have to maintain this effort," Rodriguez told the rebels in video footage of the handover in a Colombian jungle clearing. The European Union joined Washington in 2002 in classifying the FARC as terrorist, outlawing all economic support to the group.