Latin-American crisis deepens following cross-border raid

Venezuela and Ecuador have cut diplomatic ties with Colombia in a deepening crisis over a cross-border raid by Colombian troops into Ecuador. Tensions in the region are threatening to grow into an armed conflict.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has warned that another Colombian attack could mean that war may flare up in the region.

It came to a head when Colombia killed the senior FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebel Raul Reyes and 16 others in a cross-border skirmish in Ecuador.

Colombia claims that in the raid they found proof that the Venezuelan government had paid $US 300 million to the rebels – allegations Caracas dismisses.

The stakes were raised when Chavez threatened to use Russia-purchased Sukhoi fighter jets against Colombia if it attacked Venezuela.

Military analyst Ruslan Pukhov doesn’t expect a war soon.

“I don't think we will see the conflict blow up very soon, but obviously such raids and such Columbian behaviour in response to Chavez might trigger one sooner or later,” Pukhov said.

In fact, all three sides are equipped with Russian-made weapons, but in different quantities. In the past few years the Venezuelan government has been modernising its massive military arsenal.

Venezuela was very active on the arms market in 2006, with the help of an oil-rich economy, Chavez agreed a US$3-billion-dollar arms deal with Russia.

A hundred thousand Kalashnikov rifles, 24 advanced Sukhoi fighter jets and dozens of Russian helicopters were all added to Venezuela's military. The deals made Russia Caracas's main arms supplier.

The Colombian Army is using several BTR-80 armoured personnel carriers and ordered a hundred more from Russia's Rosoboronexport. Bogota's Air Force has over a dozen MI-17 helicopters and also plan to acquire MI-35 attack helicopters from Russia.

“Columbian forces are more or less tailored to chase rebels like FARC. Chavez’s troops are also in a period of transformation and at this particular moment I would say the forces are more or less equal,” Pukhov added.

Ecuador is also equipped with transport MI choppers. Its army mostly has U.S.-made weapons, but also has 36 of the renowned Soviet T-55 tanks.

With the crisis deepening, Ecuador and Venezuela are reinforcing their troop numbers and tanks at Colombia's borders. All are poised for a possible all-out conflict and all are waiting to see who will make the next move.