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Monday, March 31, 2008

Files Suggest Venezuela Bid to Aid Colombia Rebels

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Files provided by Colombian officials from computers they say were captured in a cross-border raid in Ecuador this month appear to tie Venezuela’s government to efforts to secure arms for Colombia’s largest insurgency.

Officials taking part in Colombia’s investigation of the computers provided The New York Times with copies of more than 20 files, some of which also showed contributions from the rebels to the 2006 campaign of Ecuador’s leftist president, Rafael Correa.

If verified, the files would offer rare insight into the cloak-and-dagger nature of Latin America’s longest-running guerrilla conflict, including what appeared to be the killing of a Colombian government spy with microchips implanted in her body, a crime apparently carried out by the rebels in their jungle redoubt.

The files would also potentially link the governments of Venezuela and Ecuador to the leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which the United States says is a terrorist group and has fought to overthrow Colombia’s government for four decades.

Though it was impossible to authenticate the files independently, the Colombian officials said their government had invited Interpol to verify the files. The officials did not want to be identified while any Interpol inquiry was under way.

Both the United States and Colombia, Washington’s staunchest ally in the region, have a strong interest in undercutting President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who has sought to counter United States influence by forming his own leftist bloc in the region. But the Colombian officials who provided the computer files adamantly vouched for them.

The files contained touches that suggested authenticity: they were filled with revolutionary jargon, passages in numerical code, missives about American policy in Latin America and even brief personal reflections like one by a senior rebel commander on the joy of becoming a grandfather.

Other senior Colombian officials said the files made public so far only scratched the surface of the captured archives, risking new friction with Venezuela and Ecuador, both of whom have dismissed the files as fakes.

Vice President Francisco Santos said Colombia’s stability was at risk if explicit support from its neighbors for the FARC, the country’s largest armed insurgency, was proved true. “The idea that using weapons to topple a democratic government has not been censured,” Mr. Santos said in an interview, “is not only stupid — it is frankly frightening.”

Colombia’s relations with its two Andean neighbors veered suddenly toward armed conflict after Colombian forces raided a FARC camp inside Ecuador on March 1, killing 26 people, including a top FARC commander, and capturing the computers, according to the Colombians.

Though tensions ebbed after a summit meeting of Latin American nations in the Dominican Republic this month, the matter of the computer files has threatened to reignite the diplomatic crisis caused by the raid.

Shortly after the crisis erupted, Colombian officials began releasing a small portion of the computer files, some of which they said showed efforts by Mr. Chavez’s government to provide financial support for the FARC.

Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said in an interview that officials had obtained more than 16,000 files from three computers belonging to Luis Édgar Devia Silva, a commander known by his nom de guerre, Raúl Reyes, who was killed in the raid. Two other hard drives were also captured, he said.

“Everything has been accessed and everything is being validated by Interpol,” Mr. Santos said, adding that he expected the work on the validation to be completed by the end of April. “It is a great deal of information that is extremely valuable and important.”

Mr. Santos, who said the computers survived the raid because they were in metal casing, strongly defended Colombia’s military foray into Ecuador, which drew condemnation in other parts of Latin America as a violation of Ecuador’s sovereignty.

“Personally I do not regret a thing, absolutely nothing, but I am a minister of a government that has agreed this type of action would not be repeated,” he said. “Of course, this depends on our neighbors collaborating on the fight against terrorism.”

For his part, Mr. Chávez, in a meeting with foreign journalists last week in Caracas, lashed out at Colombia’s government and mocked the files.

“The main weapon they have now is the computer, the supposed computer of Raúl Reyes,” Mr. Chávez said. “This computer is like à la carte service, giving you whatever you want. You want steak? Or fried fish? How would you like it prepared? You’ll get it however the empire decides.”

The correspondence also pointed to warm relations between Venezuela’s government and the FARC...

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