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Colombia says Venezuela's army violated sovereignty

By Reuters AlertNet

BOGOTA, Colombia, March 23 (Reuters) - About 50 Venezuelan troops backed by helicopters crossed into Colombia and occupied a village for eight hours while searching for gasoline smugglers in what Bogota called an apparent violation of its sovereignty.

Local residents said troops entered on Monday the settlement of Guaramito, near the city of Cucuta in the province of Norte de Santander, leading regional governor Luis Miguel Moreli to lodge a complaint with Colombia's Foreign Ministry.

The incident follows the December capture of a Colombian rebel in Caracas, which set off the worst diplomatic crisis between the two neighboring Andean countries in a decade.

In Monday's incident, troops interrogated locals, punching two and throwing another in a river in their search for contraband, residents said.

"About 50 members of the Venezuelan army were in the area of Guaramito pursuing gasoline smugglers, according to local residents," Moreli told reporters on Wednesday.

Colombian military chief Carlos Alberto Ospina told reporters the incident appeared to constitute a violation of sovereignty.

Neither Colombia's nor Venezuela's foreign ministries had any immediate comments.

The two countries often squabble over security on their 1,400-mile (2,200-km) border, where kidnapping and smuggling are common.

Caracas complains about violent spillover from Colombia's 40-year guerrilla war. Bogota has long suspected that Chavez sympathizes with Colombia's Marxist rebels.

The tensions turned into a diplomatic crisis after Colombia organized the abduction of a senior rebel, Rodrigo Granda, in Caracas last December.

The Granda case highlighted the political gulf between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a garrulous, left-winger close to Cuba's Fidel Castro, and Colombia's conservative leader Alvaro Uribe, a key U.S. ally.

The two met to patch up relations in February.



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