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Colombia-Venezuela relations fall further with rocket revelation

Swedish rockets and launchers sold to Venezuela have been recovered in a Colombian rebel camp.

July 28, 2009|Chris Kraul | Kraul is a special correspondent.

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Colombia's tenuous relations with Venezuela have worsened again with the revelation that Swedish-made rockets and launchers sold to the Venezuelan armed forces have been recovered in a Colombian rebel group's camp.

Last week, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez canceled a summit with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and said he would "reassess" binational relations in light of Colombia's consent to host U.S. anti-drug aircraft at as many as four air bases.

Then, on Sunday, Uribe confirmed reports that his military had recovered powerful antitank rockets during a raid on a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, weapons cache in the Macarena National Park last year.

Without naming the suspected supplier, Uribe said the FARC had acquired them on the "international arms market" and that protests had been made with unnamed countries "through diplomatic channels."

Colombian Defense Ministry officials said Monday that the rockets were AT4 shoulder-fired antitank weapons made by Saab Bofors Dynamics with serial numbers indicating they were sold to Venezuela. Saab official Thomas Samuelsson confirmed to reporters that his company made the rockets and had sold them to Venezuela, which he said had "signed a final-destination agreement" forbidding re-export without notification.

"Sometimes a weapon ends up where it shouldn't belong, but that's a rare occurrence," Samuelsson told the Agence France-Presse news agency. Sweden has asked Venezuela for an explanation of how the weapons ended up in FARC hands.

The disclosure does not prove that the Chavez government sold or willingly gave them to rebels, said Jane's Americas analyst Anna Gilmour. Venezuelan arsenals, she said, are notorious for "seepage" by corrupt officers, who resell arms and munitions as contraband.

In a news conference Monday, Venezuelan Interior Minister Tarek El Aissami denied giving the weapons to the FARC or "any collaboration with criminal or terrorist organizations. . . . If anything, we have combated terrorism."

Still, the recovered weapons seem to resemble rockets described in e-mails allegedly retrieved from the laptop computers of Raul Reyes, the FARC commander killed by Colombian forces in a March 2008 raid in Ecuador.

As represented by the Colombian government, the e-mails show exchanges between Reyes and rebel emissaries in Venezuela allegedly trying to acquire arms, including rockets, from high-level Venezuelan officials.

Chavez later denied that his government gives material support to the FARC.

Although the AT4s do not pose the strategic threat that surface-to-air missiles do, they are powerful weapons that "could potentially bring down a helicopter" from short range, said Gilmour.

The FARC is known to be actively seeking SAMs to attack Colombian special-forces helicopters. Analysts say such an acquisition could change the dynamic of a civil war in which the Uribe government has gained the upper hand.

An article this month in the Bogota daily newspaper El Tiempo said the FARC was negotiating with "Venezuelan contacts" to buy as many as 20 Russian Igla S-24 surface-to-air missile launchers.

The weapons, the article said, are the "latest generation of surface-to-air arms developed by Russian industry."

Venezuelan armed forces displayed about 50 of the SAMs during a march in April. Chavez acquired them from Russia as part of a massive military buildup that included purchases of Russian assault rifles, tanks, submarines and fighter jets.

Two high-profile reputed global arms dealers, Monzer Kasser of Syria and Victor Bout of Russia, have been arrested in the last two years through stings in which decoys posed as FARC representatives trying to buy SAMs. The "rebels" were actually undercover U.S. agents.

"We know through intelligence sources that they are trying to get surface-to-air weapons to attack our aircraft," Uribe said Monday, issuing a plea to the "international community to not sell them."

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