Chavez pledged $300mn to Colombian rebels: IISS

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Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez promised a $300 million war chest and territorial access to Colombia's FARC guerrillas in 2007, a top think tank said in a report Tuesday.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies also said the rebel group had widened its influence in the Andean region by giving financial backing to the election campaign of Ecuador's President Rafael Correa.

The report released in London is based on two years of analysis of computer files seized in March 2008 from a slain FARC commander.

The files were contained in three computers, hard drives and flash drives used by FARC's number two, Raul Reyes, who was killed by Colombian forces in a raid on a FARC camp in Ecuador.

"Since at least 2000, Chavez has harboured the clear intention of providing financial support on a scale calculated to affect the strategic balance in Colombia. In 2007, he promised the group $300 million," the report says.

The presence of FARC militants in Venezuela had been a recurrent source of discord between the two countries, which restored diplomatic ties only recently after breaking them off last year.

Colombia immediately sought to play down the report.

"I hope that this report won't create a stir which in any way damages the path we're on," Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin told national radio.

Although it seemed Chavez had not yet delivered on his promise, neither was there any evidence that it had been rejected or withdrawn, and "smaller transfers of money, weapons and ammunition have taken place over the years," the IISS report said.

"FARC has been free to use Venezuelan territory with only minor, sporadic and largely cosmetic restriction," it said. Such was Venezuela's track record of support for FARC that the recent thaw in relations was unlikely to last, it said.

The report stresses that although the guerrillas arrived in Venezuela long before Chavez, the relationship was strengthened by his accession to power in 1999.

The partnership gave FARC access to Venezuela's trading partners, Belarus and China, which "at different times expressed interest in providing weapons to the FARC through triangular arrangements through Venezuela's oil exports," the IISS said.

The report said that although Chavez "repeatedly urged the FARC to abandon armed struggle and seek a political solution, he did so only to deflect international pressure and then backtracked each time."

The report -- "The FARC Files: Venezuela, Ecuador and the Secret Archive of 'Raul Reyes'" -- said the Reyes documents and other sources collectively suggest that Correa, who took office in 2007, solicited and accepted "illegal FARC funding" during his election campaign.

Correa's election in neighbouring Ecuador was the climax of years of efforts by the guerrilla group to infiltrate the country, it said.

However, the IISS states that although the FARC used the Ecuadorian territory to "export drugs and import arms," it never enjoyed state support comparable to that provided in Venezuela.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is Colombia's oldest and largest guerrilla force, believed to have some 8,000 members. The group has been at war with the government since its founding in 1964.

In July 2010, the anti-US firebrand Chavez broke off relations with Colombia after then-president Alvaro Uribe accused Caracas of harbouring some 1,500 fighters and filed a complaint with the Organization of American States (OAS).

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos restored diplomatic relations with Venezuela three days after his inauguration in August last year.

"I spoke with (Venezuelan) Foreign Minister (Nicolas) Maduro about the release of the report and we agreed we've turned a page," Holguin said.

"I think that this new relationship, this new rapprochement that we have with Venezuela, and with Ecuador, means we have to turn the page and look forwards."

© 2011 AFP

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