by Humberto Marquez
(IPS) CARACAS -- Venezuela "has been invaded. We are facing a serious threat to the peace, integrity and security of this republic," President Hugo Chavez said Wednesday, May 12, in a nationally broadcast radio and TV address.
He was referring to an incident involving the recent capture of 86 alleged Colombian paramilitaries near Caracas.
The government says the men are paramilitary fighters brought in from northeastern Colombia by extremists in the anti-Chavez opposition movement to form part of a force that was to attack military installations, officials, and governing party and opposition political leaders.
The aborted plan entailed an invasion that was "thought up, planned and led by an international network -- two of whose hubs are Miami, Florida and Colombia -- with the complicity of unpatriotic Venezuelans," said Chavez.
"Traitorous officers in Venezuela's armed forces, both active and retired, helped bring the terrorists from the border to Caracas," he added.
On Sunday, authorities in Venezuela arrested 86 unarmed Colombians wearing Venezuelan army uniforms in a country house on the outskirts of the capital that belongs to a radical member of the opposition, Cuban-born Venezuelan Robert Alonso, whose whereabouts are unknown but who may be living in Miami.
Since then, 16 other Colombians have been detained; properties of members of the business community and politicians with links to the opposition have been searched; and the arrest of around 10 National Guard and Air Force officers, including four on active duty, has been ordered.
Several opposition leaders, former defense ministers and media personalities have stated that the case of the paramilitaries is "a show mounted by Chavez" to draw attention away from the opposition's attempt to hold a recall referendum for the president before August.
Chavez called an extraordinary meeting of the Defense Council, made up of the heads of the branches of government and the top military commanders, and declared it in permanent session on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the verbal battles continued between Bogota, Caracas and Washington, but with some room left for cooperation and diplomacy.
Colombian Foreign Minister Carolina Barco plans to travel to Caracas Friday to cooperate in the investigation of the incident, and "will reiterate to the Venezuelan government the desire to achieve clarity with respect to last Sunday's events," said a statement issued by her office.
Colombian Ambassador to Venezuela Mariangel Holguin urged that the case be dealt with through diplomatic channels, far from the "microphones." "We must return somewhat to the route of diplomatic and judicial dialogue, rather than so many statements in the press," she said.
Holguin said the information received on the first 54 detainees in Caracas confirms that they are Colombian citizens, that 28 completed military service in their country, and that only one has a criminal record.
Chavez insisted that the men are "dangerous" paramilitaries involved in Colombia's civil war and said that he personally spoke with one of the leaders of the group, who was arrested in southwestern Venezuela as he attempted to flee.
"He is a cold man, a former professional soldier, and was apparently responsible for the execution of several who tried to escape from the camp."
Venezuelan authorities believe the bodies of two men found near Alonso's country house were members of the group who were killed by their fellow paramilitaries.
With regards to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, Chavez said, "We have been pleased to hear that he criticises this incident, and we believe we can expect full collaboration from him."
But Chavez also said he had "elements" that led him "to doubt the good faith" of Colombia's military intelligence apparatus, and accused Colombian army chief Gen. Martin Carreņo of being opposed to his government and of "brazenly lying."
Carreņo denied allegations Tuesday by Venezuelan Vice-President Jose Vicente Rangel, who said the Colombian army chief had met in March with members of the opposition who were plotting actions to destabilise the Chavez administration.
Rangel -- who handles relations with the United States and Colombia in the Venezuelan government's division of labour, according to analysts like Carlos Romero -- met with Holguin on Tuesday and with U.S. Ambassador Charles Shapiro on Wednesday.
The U.S. diplomat said Washington "rejects the attempts to link the arrested Colombians with our government. The paramilitaries, like the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] guerrillas, are international terrorists that are financed by kidnapping and drug trafficking, and their leaders are wanted in U.S. courts."
The U.S. government "rejects any attempt to change the government by force. Our policy is to work within the Organization of American States and the Group of Friends (Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Portugal, Spain and the United States) to come up with a peaceful, democratic, constitutional and electoral solution to the Venezuelan crisis," said Shapiro.
But Chavez said that before the Colombians were captured on Sunday, there was a build-up of statements hostile to his government from the U.S. Defense and State departments.
"It is what we call, in military jargon, preparation fire to heat up the climate ahead of an attack like the actions the paramilitaries were going to attempt," said Chavez, a former paratroop commander.
"I can almost predict what the script would have been: the paramilitaries, dressed as Venezuelan soldiers, would attack the government palace to kill the president, as well as some military installation, to show the world a false image of a division within the armed forces," he added.
If that had occurred, "a civil war would have been triggered. Thank God and the security bodies that we thwarted this danger, but I must add: for now."
In support of his argument, he read an article that Alonso published on the Internet, in which the activist calls for civil disobedience and street protests against Chavez.
Chavez accuses Alonso of belonging to right-wing groups in Miami opposed to Cuban President Fidel Castro.
He also quoted former Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev, who told journalists in Caracas this week that "I'm sure Mr. Chavez has gotten in the way of someone, of powerful groups in the world, and that 'someone' doesn't like it."
Meanwhile, the Democratic Coordinator opposition coalition complained Wednesday of "an escalation of repression by the government" this week.
The Coordinator protested the imprisonment Tuesday of Henrique Capriles, mayor of Baruta, a middle-class neighbourhood and a stronghold of the opposition in southeastern Caracas.
Capriles was arrested in connection with a trial underway since a 2002 attack on the Cuban Embassy, which is located in his district.
The arrest "is a politically motivated arbitrary detention," said Enrique Mendoza, the head of the Democratic Coordinator, a coalition of parties and social groups opposed to Chavez.
But "we will overcome all barriers...and remove the president with votes, rather than a coup," he added, referring to the recall referendum sought by the opposition.
As part of the investigations of the arrested Colombians, the security forces searched a rural estate belonging to media magnate Gustavo Cisneros, and a warehouse rented by the U.S. Embassy to store furniture.
They also raided a home inhabited by family members of former President Carlos Andres Perez (1974-1979 and 1989-1993), who was convicted of corruption and lives in exile. In recent days, Perez has called for a coup to topple Chavez.
In April 2002, an aborted coup d'etat removed the left-leaning, populist Chavez from power for two days; a December 2002-January 2003 lockout by the opposition caused 10 billion dollars in losses; and 10 people were killed in opposition demonstrations that led to disturbances in late February and early March this year.
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