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Friday, March 07, 2008

Correa: Colombia's strike ruined hostage release

High-profile hostage Ingrid Betancourt was going to be freed this month thanks to contacts with slain Colombian rebel leader Raúl Reyes, but a Colombian military strike against him botched her liberation, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said Thursday in Nicaragua.

After Correa's announcement Thursday afternoon, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega broke off diplomatic relations with Colombia.

''We are breaking off relations because of the political terrorism being carried out by the government of [Colombian President] Alvaro Uribe, not because of the Colombian people,'' said Ortega, who during Nicaragua's 1980s civil war often sent troops to attack rebel camps in neighboring Honduras.

Correa visited Nicaragua on his fourth stop in a tour to whip up anti-Uribe fervor in protest of Saturday's cross-border strike by Colombia into Ecuador. The Colombian military strike killed Reyes, a top Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia leader.

In an angry news conference in Managua, Correa said that under Uribe's premise that a government is justified in bombing another in the interest of national security, all of Latin America would be warranted in attacking Colombia. They could start by bombing not just Colombia's Senate, but its presidential palace, long accused of protecting right-wing paramilitary death squads.

''What country on the continent most shelters illegal groups, paramilitaries, guerrillas, narcotraffickers? Colombia!'' Correa said. ``Colombia most shelters what you denounce, Alvaro Uribe. Don't be a hypocrite.''

Ecuador has found itself on the defensive since Saturday's attack, because computers seized at the site revealed that a member of Correa's Cabinet secretly met with Reyes, a leader of a four-decade insurgency that finances terrorism through the drug trade and ransom. Correa said the meeting was to secure the release of Betancourt, and that Uribe was aware of the efforts.

Betancourt and 11 others were going to be released a few at a time beginning this month, he said. Betancourt's husband, Juan Carlos Lecompte, said he believes Correa is telling the truth.

''The times we have thought that her release is coming, something always comes up; there's always a trick, a problem, an obstacle by Uribe,'' he said. ``I'm filled with anguish. France said it, and Ecuador also said it: They killed the person who was the contact who was negotiating the release of the hostages.

``If the FARC decides to play hard . . . they should release Ingrid right now to shut Uribe's mouth and prove that Correa was really after her liberation.''

Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos told CNN en Español that Uribe had no information that Ecuador was holding talks for a possible hostage release.

Correa's allegation was also a blow to the families of other hostages held by the FARC, who hold out hope that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez will be able to negotiate more releases, despite Reyes' killing.

''Uribe does not want the hostages freed,'' said Jo Rosano, whose son Marc Gonsalves, an American defense contractor, has been held for five years. 'Uribe will stand right in front of us and say, `I'll do whatever I can,' and then he goes the other way and does whatever he wants. Uribe would just as soon see the hostages dead.''

In a meeting with news directors Thursday, Uribe apologized for bringing troops into Ecuador and said it won't happen again, but he said Ecuador must do a better job of keeping rebels out.

''What does one do when bandits are shooting from the other side and the government doesn't do anything?'' Uribe asked, according to The Associated Press. ``It's my job to defend 43 million Colombians.

''I accept that it will not happen again,'' Uribe said. ``We will not repeat these operations if they guarantee they will not shelter them.''

Santos, the defense minister, said the military has documented 39 cases in which Colombia was attacked by rebels firing from Ecuador. In 2005, rebels in Ecuador launched an assault on an isolated army base in the southern town of Teteyé, killing 22 soldiers.

In the past 12 months, 16 communiqués about FARC incursions have been sent through the binational border commission, Santos said in a speech to Congress. Another eight diplomatic notes were sent to the Foreign Ministry warning of a FARC presence, he said, the most recent Feb. 25.

Santos said they either deny it or ignore the communiqués.

''What has been Ecuador's attitude before these communications?'' Santos asked. 'On the one hand, an answer like saying, `This isn't true. We don't accept that.' And they become belligerent. Or the other answer is simply to maintain silence.

''Deep down the debate is why do they allow terrorist groups to attack our people from their territory?'' he said.

Santos said Ecuador complains that Colombia does not control the border, but whenever Colombia proposes a joint operation, Ecuador refuses.

Ecuador's Defense Ministry says it has dismantled 117 FARC guerrilla camps in the past four years, including 47 last year alone. Eleven guerrillas were arrested last year, and five FARC rebels were captured in Ecuador near the border Thursday, the country announced.

''Ecuador is preparing all the proof to demonstrate we have constantly guarded our borders and have not protected the FARC,'' Ecuadorean Foreign Minister María Isabel Salvador said at a news conference in Miami.

Correa also criticized a video of the operation released by the Colombian Defense Ministry, which showed the troops stayed in Ecuador until the next day and its prosecutors carefully cataloged evidence.

''Are they crazy?'' Correa said. ``That shows this was not an incursion -- it was an invasion.''

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to consider putting Venezuela on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. She also wants Ecuador investigated.

Such a designation would have minimal impact on Venezuela, because it would allow the country to continue selling oil to the United States. However, the effect would be severe on Ecuador, which gets U.S. aid and special market access for its products.

Miami Herald Washington correspondent Pablo Bachelet, El Nuevo Herald staff writer Juan Carlos Chávez and special correspondent Jenny Carolina González in Bogotá contributed to this report.

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