Chavez: Venezuela wants better ties with Bogota

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Hugo Chavez said Sunday he wants to repair strained relations with Colombia, saying he hopes a breakthrough is possible regardless of which candidate wins the neighboring nation's presidential ballot next month.

But the socialist Chavez, who has been fiercely critical of Colombia's outgoing conservative president, Alvaro Uribe, added that any effort to end the diplomatic conflict won't be possible unless Colombia's next leader fully respects his government.

"I'm not going to tolerate a single act of disrespect toward our country," Chavez said, speaking during his weekly television and radio program.

Colombians vote May 30 on a successor for Uribe, whose term ends Aug. 7.

While Chavez said he hopes for improved relations with Colombia's next president, he said efforts to lessen tensions would face serious obstacles if Uribe's close ally — Juan Manuel Santos — wins the presidential vote.

He also said that Colombia could become a serious threat to its neighbors if Santos, a former defense minister, is elected.

"As president, Santos could cause a war in this part of the world," Chavez said. "Santos doesn't respect anything."

During an exclusive interview Sunday with The Associated Press in Bogota, Santos said he disapproves of Chavez's politics, although he believes Colombia's relations with Venezuela could improve if ties are based on mutual respect.

"We have a very different manner of viewing life, politics, what a democracy should be like, freedom of expression," the conservative Santos said. "But if we respect these differences, we can have good relations."

Santos has accused Chavez of meddling in Colombia's presidential campaign, but the Venezuelan leader denied Sunday that he is trying to influence the outcome of the election.

Relations between Chavez and Uribe have been rocky for years, but frictions worsened in recent months over Colombia's agreement to give the U.S. increased access to its military bases — a deal that Chavez calls a threat to Venezuela.

Colombia, meanwhile, alleges Chavez's government has allowed Colombian rebels to take refuge inside Venezuela. Chavez has repeatedly rejected the allegations.

During his talk, Chavez condemned Uribe and other Colombian politicians for suggesting his government has let members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the much smaller National Liberation Army to take refuge in Venezuela.

"How long are they going to continue repeating that we have guerrillas hidden here, that Venezuelan soldiers give courses to terrorists? ... It's a lie," said Chavez, whose government insists it is neutral in Colombia's fight with Marxist rebels.

Both Colombian rebel groups operate in regions bordering Venezuela.


Associated Press Writer Libardo Cardona in Bogota contributed to this report.