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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

ECUADOR-COLOMBIA: No Ready Solution in Sight

By Kintto Lucas
QUITO, Apr 18 (IPS) - The diplomatic row between Ecuador and Colombia that was triggered by the Mar. 1 Colombian bombing raid of a FARC rebel camp in Ecuadorean territory unleashed a flurry of mutual accusations and cast a pall of uncertainty over the future relations between the neighbouring countries.

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa told IPS Friday that his government does not want to "deepen the conflict" with Colombia, but that it cannot keep silent in the face of the constant verbal attacks from Colombia’s right-wing President Álvaro Uribe.

Correa asked Organisation of American States (OAS) Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, in their meeting Friday in Quito, to take a hand in the matter, in order to get the Colombian government to cease its verbal aggression against Ecuador.

It will be difficult to re-establish diplomatic ties -- which Ecuador broke off after the Colombian military bombed the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) camp within Ecuadorean territory -- as long as "Bogotá’s lies, maliciousness and media campaign continue," the president added.

With respect to the Colombian government’s claims that Correa had ordered Ecuador’s armed forces not to pursue the FARC within the national territory, the president said he would reveal "certain confidential recordings of COSENA (National Security Council) meetings dealing with the defence of our national territory."

He said the COSENA meetings in question, in which the members of the Council talk about pursuing any armed Colombian forces who enter Ecuador, clearly refute the Uribe administration’s "libel and slander."

"How can it be that Mr. Uribe commits himself to something in the OAS and the Rio Group, and later says he does not regret the attack?" said Correa.

He was referring to meetings held by the two regional bodies shortly after the Mar. 1 attack that killed FARC’s international spokesman Raúl Reyes and two dozen other people.

Both the OAS and Rio Group -- a regional mechanism of political consultation and coordination -- adopted resolutions rejecting the Mar. 1 bombing raid and urging Colombia to respect the principles of national sovereignty and territorial integrity, which Bogotá promised to do.

But in later statements, Colombian Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos made it clear that his country would not hesitate to do the same thing over again in similar circumstances.

Authorities in Colombia have accused Quito of links to the FARC, and have published cryptic fragments of documents that were allegedly found in laptop computers seized at Raúl Reyes’ camp, and which the Colombian government has interpreted as evidence of such ties.

"Who can keep Colombia from bombing us again one of these days? We have to be particularly wary when Uribe acts like he is close to Ecuador," said Correa, who added that when the Colombian leader said he would stop anti-coca fumigations along the border between the two countries, spraying operations in the area were actually stepped up.

On Mar. 31, the Correa administration brought legal action against Colombia before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague for damages caused by the spraying of glyphosate, an herbicide, along the border.

Scientific studies have found that Ecuadoreans living near the border have suffered health effects as a result of the spraying of coca crops in Colombia. The fumigation has also affected crops and livestock.

Ecuador has asked the ICJ to order Colombia to pay reparations for the damages caused to the local population and the environment over the past seven years.

The lawsuit states that several indigenous communities have fled Ecuador’s border region as a result of the aerial fumigation.

Ecuadorean Foreign Minister María Isabel Salvador said that in January and February, her government once again attempted to tackle the problem in talks between the two countries’ foreign ministries.

But Salvador said the Colombian government refused to sign an agreement to refrain from spraying within 10 kilometres of the border, and, "with no other option left open to us, after seven years of diplomatic efforts, Ecuador decided to take legal action."

Quito wants the ICJ to declare that Colombia’s spraying has violated Ecuador’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity; order that it stop spraying within 10 kilometres of the border; and establish reparations to be paid for the damages caused.

Although the government had been preparing the lawsuit since last year and it was not directly related to the Mar. 1 bombing, the cross-border raid prompted the Correa administration to move ahead more decisively with the issue.

"There is no doubt that the spraying constitutes a grave violation of sovereignty and international law," said Salvador.

The Uribe administration has rejected the legal action, arguing in a statement that "the FARC have been the main promoters of the cultivation of illegal crops in Colombian territory, and it is they who manipulate the people into protesting any initiative aimed at eradicating such crops."

In January, "President Uribe reiterated the offer to indemnify, in accordance with Colombian law, Ecuadorean citizens who may have suffered damages as a result of the aerial spraying," added the communiqué.

The statement also said that Uribe "expressed his intention of intensifying manual (coca) eradication programmes in the area," but had decided against making a commitment to suspend the spraying.

Correa told IPS that he would begin a diplomatic campaign in Europe to debunk the Colombian government’s allegations against his government.

Bogotá’s "smear campaign based on misinformation has done us a great deal of harm, given how susceptible the European Union is to this kind of thing," said Correa.

On the other hand, "the Colombia’s government has suffered a complete political, diplomatic and media defeat in Latin America; no one in the region believes Uribe anymore, and the Rio Group condemnation was couched in very strong terms," said the left-leaning president. Correa told the press Thursday that "We won't allow any regular or irregular foreign forces to set foot on Ecuadorean soil. If we come across patrols, or FARC camps, in Ecuadorean territory, it will be considered an act of war." He also called on the FARC to release all of the hostages the rebel group is holding, and said Ecuador was willing to help broker a humanitarian solution to the hostage crisis.

"If we can serve as intermediaries, we will do so," he said, adding that prior to the bombing of the FARC camp, he had already offered to host on Ecuadorean territory an operation for the release of the 37 hostages still held by the Colombian insurgents, who want to trade them for some 500 imprisoned guerrillas.

Correa said that while Ecuador maintains control over its territory, Colombia has been unable to do the same with respect to its own, despite the fact that it has more than 400,000 military troops and police officers, compared to Ecuador’s 40,000.

He also pointed out that Colombia’s civil war, which has dragged on for nearly half a century, is the "biggest source of instability in Latin America," while stressing the continuous flow of U.S. aid received by Bogotá from the United States, through the Plan Colombia anti-drug and counterinsurgency strategy.

"I hope that someday there will be an integrated regional defence policy and armed forces," said the 45-year-old U.S.- and European-educated economist.

Integrated forces "would be free of foreign tutelage from countries unfamiliar with our reality, our history," he said, referring to the United States.

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