- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 10, 2009


Colombia has been building up forces along its eastern border with Venezuela following weeks of provocations by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has threatened war against Colombia for a recent agreement that allows U.S. troops to use Colombia’s main military bases.

A new army division of 15,000 men has been formed to protect the 94,000-square-mile frontier region, according to a communique released by Colombia’s defense ministry late last month.

“The new unit will increase the combat power to confront the threat that originates from narco-terrorist groups in the east of Colombia” the statement says.

The rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) have been operating across the Venezuelan border for years and are frequent targets of Colombian intelligence operations. Analysts say they think Colombia’s military buildup has been spurred by recent incidents in which scores of Colombian nationals have been killed inside Venezuela.

Last month, three Colombians, including two women and an ex army sergeant, were fatally shot after being arrested by the Venezuelan National Guard near a border crossing on the Arauca River.

Venezuelan officials accused them of being “paramilitary infiltrators.” The Colombian government said they were working for a private security company.

Venezuelan soldiers also blew up two pedestrian bridges connecting the countries to prevent further infiltrations by Colombian “spies,” according to official Venezuelan statements.

Colombia’s response so far has been measured.

“These are calculated provocations by President Chavez,” said a senior U.S. government official who spoke on condition that he not be named because of the sensitivity of the topic. “Colombia hasn’t been taking that bait.”

In a national radio interview Nov. 27, however, Colombian Defense Minister Gabriel Silva warned that his government is prepared to act forcefully.

“Colombia would never attack Venezuela, but if attacked, we will respond to win,” he said.

Hercules C-130 transport planes have been flying large numbers of Colombian troops, including elite U.S.-trained counterinsurgency battalions, and large stores of ammunition and 105 Howitzer field guns to the frontier provinces of Arauca and Apure over recent days.

Naval units also have been deployed around the northern border peninsula of La Guajira, where frontier observation posts have been reinforced and surveillance flights increased, according to Colombian officers who asked that their identities not be revealed because of the sensitive nature of the deployments.

According to these sources, two high-ranking officers of the U.S. military mission in Colombia recently inspected the border region and attended the opening of the new 8th Army Division headquarters in the southern border province of Casanare.

U.S. military aid to Colombia is intended for anti-drug efforts, but Mr. Chavez frequently accuses Washington of preparing to oust him from power.

Meanwhile, Mr. Chavez has ordered 15,000 Venezuelan troops to Venezuela’s border and warned that 500 new armored vehicles, including T-72 tanks, are on their way from Russia.

On Monday, Mr. Chavez said Venezuela has received thousands of Russian-made missiles and rocket launchers in preparation for a possible armed conflict with Colombia, Associated Press reported.

“I’m obliged to call on Venezuelans to be ready for combat,” Mr. Chavez said in speech last month when he also rejected an offer from Brazil for an international force to police the border with Colombia.

“The problem is not the frontier; it is the [U.S.] military bases,” Mr. Chavez said. “They can eavesdrop on our conversations and launch unmanned aircraft.”

Faced with growing domestic dissatisfaction over a sputtering economy, Mr. Chavez appears to hope that the tensions with Colombia will unify Venezuelans behind him.

On paper at least, Venezuela’s order of battle appears superior to that of Colombia, which has no air power to match Venezuela’s 24 advanced Sukhoi Su-30 fighter bombers, acquired from Russia three years ago.

Military analysts say, however, that internal weaknesses in Venezuela’s armed forces, including poor communications and low troop morale, would make a conventional military offensive not viable.

“There is no stomach or support for a war with Colombia,” said a senior U.S. government official. He said Mr. Chavez’s belligerence is caused by “compelling domestic reasons.”

Opponents of Mr. Chavez blame recent shortages of electricity and water in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, and other main cities on rampant corruption and mismanagement in his socialist regime.

Colombian international security expert Col. Jose Marulanda, said Mr. Chavez is seeking to whip up anti-Colombian and anti-U.S. sentiment to generate border tensions that would justify declaring martial law.

“Chavez wants to provoke frontier incidents using FARC, ELN and his Bolivarian Liberation Front,” a Venezuela-based militia, Col. Marulanda said. The Colombian said he fears that “skirmishes between irregular forces could spill over into generalized violence.”

Venezuelan Gen. Alberto Muller, a former chief of staff and close adviser to Mr. Chavez, has said that Colombia’s own internal conflict prevents it from mobilizing sufficient forces to effectively control the frontier: “If Colombia has to move the army against Venezuela, Bogota would fall to the FARC.

“The United States, even with its military bases and all it has, cannot do it, either, because it cannot stand an additional war effort to that which it is already performing in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Gen. Muller said.

Mr. Marulanda said the U.S. would need to provide support to Colombia in the event of a war with Venezuela. “U.S. satellite and radars would have to give us advanced warning of any movement by the Sukhois,” he said. “We don’t know if President Obama is prepared to open another war front in Colombia.”

“Isolated incidents could result in situations where both sides would exchange fire,” said the senior U.S. official. “We would count on both sides to pull back.”

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