- The Washington Times - Monday, September 11, 2000

CARACAS, Venezuela Venezuela and Colombia are squabbling over fears that President Clinton's $1.3 billion aid package to help fight drug trafficking in Colombia will escalate military activities and destabilize the region.

President Hugo Chavez has said an encounter between American soldiers and Colombian guerrillas could lead to a "Vietnamization" of the conflict, with repercussions for the entire region.

Mr. Chavez harped on that theme during Mr. Clinton's visit to Colombia at the end of last month and before his visit to a summit attended by South America's 12 presidents in Brasilia.

Both Mr. Clinton and his Colombian counterpart, Andres Pastrana, dismissed any suggestion that the aid package would widen the war. But Mr. Chavez repeated in Brasilia that, "it would be very dangerous if the operation fuels an increase of military activity. This could lead us to a Vietnamization of the entire Amazonic region."

Mr. Chavez added: "Some sectors of Colombia and other places may think that the conflict in this brother state has a military solution. This is wrong. The only solution is through peace."

Venezuela's minister of foreign affairs, Jose Vicente Rangel, also took up the theme, saying a wider war in Colombia could drive refugees across the border into Venezuela. The countries share a border of more than 1,250 miles, and thousands of Colombians work in Venezuela.

"An intensification of the Colombian conflict, as a result of the increase of military [activity], could signal a mass movement of the Colombia population to different neighboring countries," Mr. Rangel said.

Colombian Foreign Minister Guillermo Fernandez objected to the remarks, saying no other country had the right to stigmatize Colombia's accord with the United States. "It's a lack of respect for Colombia, which is not acceptable from anybody," he said.

Diplomatic relations between Colombia and Venezuela have been troubled since Mr. Chavez became president in February 1999. Both the Colombian government and Venezuela's opposition see many positions taken by the leftist Mr. Chavez as supportive of the Colombian rebels.

Retired Gen. Fernando Ochoa, who supports Mr. Chavez, said Venezuela itself has faced repeated attacks by Colombian guerrillas.

Colombian rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) have killed numerous Venezuelan civilians and military officers, kidnapped hundreds of people and damaged businesses along the border.

Venezuelan media were preoccupied with the situation in Colombia in the days before Mr. Clinton's visit to Cartagena, Colombia.

Almost all said the visit had strengthened Mr. Pastrana's position, making it more likely that the guerrillas would be forced to enter serious peace negotiations.

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