The Colombian army is investigating more than a dozen reported Venezuelan military incursions to aid narco-guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in their decades-long struggle against Colombia's U.S.-backed government and right-wing paramilitaries.
The most serious clash took place March 21.
Some diplomats say Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez may want to pick a fight with Colombia to deflect the attention of his armed forces from the country's escalating political crisis. He is strongly resisting pressures from his right-wing led opposition for a referendum on his presidency.
Although the existence of FARC bases inside Venezuela has been known for some time, the participation of Venezuelan military units in combat operations has not been fully disclosed until now.
Chavez denied charges made earlier this year by Colombian Defense Minister Marta Ramirez that Venezuelan aircraft were attacking Colombian territory. But witnesses, including a guerrilla defector, have since confirmed the accusations. A member of FARC testified that his 150-man guerrilla column has been operating from safe havens in Venezuela with the full support of that country's armed forces for their cross-border raids, according to records of official investigations that have been leaked to UPI.
The 10-page special investigation was presented May 16 to Colombian Attorney General Luis Camilo Osorio Isaza. Copies are also with the Foreign and Defense ministries.
"We were inside Colombian territory when two fighter planes and four helicopters coming in from Venezuela flew over our position to shoot up paras trying to surround us," said FARC defector Juan Bautista Ramirez Lopez in the 10-page testimony. He said the Venezuelan warplanes bombed a nearby airstrip and strafed local farms with machine-gun fire.
Ramirez's account was corroborated by more than a dozen local residents along the border region of Hoya del Catatumbo, whose homes and vehicles were damaged in the air attacks. A farmer, Juan Gutierrez Rincon, said he saw four helicopters with Venezuelan air force markings firing at the ground around him and two fighter planes flying over his home to drop bombs on targets less than 1.2 miles away where heavy fighting was taking place. His testimony also appeared in the report.
Ballistic tests, cited in the report, showed that bullet holes on the roofs of several homes were caused by air-to-ground fire.
"Incursions by Venezuelan military aircraft have contributed to a growing displacement of farmers and other local residents who have been forced to flee the area," concluded the confidential government report.
"Aside from allowing Colombian guerrilla bases on their territory, the Venezuelan armed forces support the incursions and combat operations against paramilitary groups," the report further stated.
Ramirez said the Venezuelan gunships were providing air cover for his group to break out of an encirclement along Rio Oro, which marks the frontier with Colombia. Paramilitary units were maneuvering to capture Ruben Zamora, a key FARC leader, who is the guerrilla organization's financial director, according to the defector's testimony.
Zamora has been based in Venezuela for several years and enjoys close ties with senior Venezuelan military commanders. In the report, Ramirez says he witnessed meetings between a group of guerrilla leaders led by Zamora and a delegation of eight Venezuelan officers who were transported to a FARC camp in their military helicopters during August 2002.
Following the talks, FARC units were issued with military codes to identify themselves as members of Venezuela's armed forces, according to the guerrilla source.
While the air raid last March is the most-serious Venezuelan violation to be recorded yet, the army is separately investigating 15 more invasions of Colombian territory. In one incident last August, a Venezuelan air force helicopter is reported to have landed a dozen guerrillas to raid a ranch house alleged to be a paramilitary headquarters.
Investigators even allege that the Venezuelan army has assisted FARC in smuggling car bombs for a recent wave of terrorist attacks, and has infiltrated sabotage units to blow up Colombia's main oil pipeline of Caño Limon, which runs close to the Venezuelan border.
"Venezuela profits by sabotaging our oil industry," a Colombian military official told UPI. "When our oil production is disrupted, theirs increases."
The officer said Venezuela charges indemnities from Colombia for contamination from oil spills caused by bomb attacks.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has until now backed away from frontal accusations against his neighbor. But evidence of Venezuelan involvement with FARC was presented to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld when he visited Bogota last month to discuss U.S. military aid that has totaled some $3 billion during recent years.
"We are looking into reports of Colombian guerrilla bases in Venezuelan territory," Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers recently told a news conference.
The statement drew a sharp rebuke from Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel, who accused the United States of "meddling in Venezuela's internal affairs."
Chavez, however, is planning to buy 50 Russian Mig 29s to upgrade his military's offensive capability, said sources close to Uribe. The warplanes would be flown by Cuban pilots who could already be among the thousands of advisers that Cuban leader Fidel Castro has sent to Venezuela to assist his close friend and ideological ally.