- Associated Press - Sunday, July 25, 2010

CARACAS, Venezuela | President Hugo Chavez threatened on Sunday to halt oil sales to the United States if Venezuela faces any military attack by its U.S.-allied neighbor Colombia.

Mr. Chavez said in a speech to thousands of supporters that if there is an “armed aggression against Venezuela” from Colombia backed by the U.S., “we would suspend shipments of oil.”

Mr. Chavez said that “we wouldn’t send one more drop” of oil to the United States, which is the top buyer of oil from the South American country.

If actually carried out, such a threat would be a titanic economic blow for Mr. Chavez’s government, which depends heavily on oil sales. It’s likely Mr. Chavez made the warning in part to put the U.S. and Colombia on notice that he will not stand for a more aggressive international campaign to denounce allegations that leftist Colombian rebels are finding safe haven in Venezuela.

Mr. Chavez in the past has threatened to curb oil sales to the United States and has said he would sell more oil to China.

The Venezuelan leader cut off diplomatic relations with Colombia on Thursday after outgoing President Alvaro Uribe’s government presented photos, videos and maps of what it said were Colombian rebel camps inside Venezuela.

Mr. Chavez called it an attempt to smear his government and said Mr. Uribe could be trying to lay the groundwork for an armed conflict.

The Colombian government denies seeking a military conflict. It says it went to the Organization of American States with its evidence about the leftist rebels’ alleged presence in Venezuela because Mr. Chavez’s government has not addressed the situation.

Mr. Chavez also said Sunday that he had canceled a trip to Cuba due to the tensions with Colombia.

In 2008, Mr. Chavez warned of a possible war with Colombia after the Colombian military staged a cross-border raid on a rebel camp in Ecuador that killed a guerrilla leader, Raul Reyes. Mr. Chavez on Sunday appeared to be giving a new warning to Colombia — and the U.S. — that he won’t tolerate a repeat in Venezuelan territory.

He said separately in a newspaper column, however, that he will wait to see if Colombian President-elect Juan Manuel Santos, who takes office next month, expresses what Mr. Chavez deems a genuine willingness to ease the diplomatic conflict.

“We have to receive clear and unequivocal signals that there is a real political will in the new Colombian government to take up the path of dialogue again, without tricks,” Mr. Chavez wrote.

The conservative Mr. Uribe has frequently feuded with the socialist Mr. Chavez, and Colombian officials have long complained, mostly in private, that Mr. Chavez has harbored leaders of its two main leftist rebel groups.

Mr. Santos, however, has stressed the importance of mending trade relations with Venezuela that overwhelmingly benefit Colombia’s food producers. And Mr. Chavez has raised the possibility that relations could be restored under Mr. Santos.

Trade between Venezuela and Colombia has fallen about 70 percent since Mr. Chavez froze relations a year ago in response to Colombia’s decision to grant the U.S. military expanded access to its military bases.

Last week, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed hope that Venezuela and Colombia will work out their differences in a peaceful manner.

And in Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley called the dispute unfortunate and said it was a “petulant response by Venezuela to cut off relations with Colombia.”

Venezuela has clear responsibilities. Colombia has put forward serious charges. They deserve to be investigated,” Mr. Crowley told reporters.

Colombian Foreign Minister Jaime Bermudez complained that Venezuela had cut relations without clearly responding to the Colombian government’s accusations. He said what’s needed is “effective cooperation in the fight against terrorism.”