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US: Colombian Terrorists Getting Refuge in Venezuela

The United States Thursday expressed concern that terrorist groups fighting Colombia's government are finding refuge across the border in Venezuela. Senior U.S. officials have been increasingly critical of the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The State Department says that either by design or negligence, Venezuela's border region with Colombia is becoming a place of refuge for armed groups battling the Colombian government including left-wing FARC guerrillas.

The comments here followed publication of a letter from a senior State Department official to a member of Congress containing some of the strongest U.S. criticism to date of the Chavez government.

In the letter to Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, acting Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Matthew Reynolds said the Bush administration has found mounting evidence that Venezuela is actively using its oil wealth to de-stabilize democratic neighbors.

Mr. Reynolds also said the United States is continuing to monitor what he said were the potentially destabilizing effects of recent Venezuelan arms acquisitions including 100,000 assault rifles from Russia.

Asked about the letter at a State Department news briefing, acting Spokesman Thomas Casey said the concerns raised by Mr. Reynolds are well-documented though he said he would not discuss U.S. intelligence information.

He said weapons and ammunition known to have come from official Venezuelan stocks have been finding their way into the hands of Colombian terrorist groups, and that the same groups have come to look on Venezuelan territory as a safe haven.

"Venezuela hasn't been able, or hasn't been willing, to assert control over its 1,400-mile [2,253 kilometers] border with Colombia," Mr. Casey said. "And Colombia's terrorist groups, not only the FARC, but the ELN and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, the AUC, which are all U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations as well, are continuing to look at Venezuelan territory and regard areas near the border as a safe area to conduct cross-border incursions, to transport arms and drugs and provide rest for their members and secure logistical supplies."

Spokesman Casey insisted the issues raised by Mr. Reynolds were not new and that he was not alleging official Venezuelan support for the Colombian groups.

He also said the State Department stood by Mr. Reynolds charge in the letter that the Chavez government has been funding anti-democratic groups in Bolivia, Ecuador and elsewhere, though he declined to elaborate.

Mr. Reynolds told Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen in the letter dated July 27 the United States is working with friends in the region to deter what he said was Venezuelan and Cuban meddling in the internal affairs of regional democracies.

The Chavez government has accused the United States of interfering in its affairs by providing money to Venezuelan non-governmental groups including some which supported the recall movement against Mr. Chavez last year.

Last month a Venezuelan judge ordered leaders of one such group, Sumate, to be put on trial for conspiracy for accepting money from the Congressionally-funded National Endowment for Democracy.

Mr. Casey said U.S. funding for groups in Venezuela as well as others throughout the Hemisphere is to help support development of democratic civil society, and not directed to any specific candidate or movement.