Colombian army officials say 12 soldiers killed by rebels

Juan Manuel Santos
BOGOTA, Colombia -- Colombian army officials said Monday that 12 soldiers were killed in an ambush by leftist rebels who, according to one commander, “presumably” fled into Venezuelan territory afterward.

The soldiers were attacked Monday near Maicao, a border city in northern Guajira state, by 80 to 90 members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The soldiers were there to protect a group of civilian workers repairing an electric power line tower that the rebels had previously destroyed.

According to the army, fighting occurred less than a quarter-mile from the Colombia-Venezuela border. In addition to those killed, four soldiers were wounded. No rebels were reported killed.

“It was a fierce fight. A numerous group [of rebels] came presumably from Venezuela and presumably fled back into Venezuela” after the firefight, Army Gen. Sergio Mantilla told reporters.

The attack prompted a telephone call from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to extend condolences for those killed, which included an  officer and a sergeant. Although he said the entry of foreign armed forces into Venezuela is prohibited, he acknowledged that the rebels may have entered the country.

“Some units of the guerrilla group may have crossed Venezuelan territory. We are reinforcing patrols and reconnaissance in the zone,” Chavez told a TV audience. “We don’t want to get involved in a conflict that isn’t ours.”

In an address to the nation Monday night, Santos said Chavez had promised to send some of his forces to the area to look for the rebels.

"This is a setback. It's not the first and it won't be the last," Santos said, referring to the four-decades-long fight with the rebel group.

Relations between Colombia and Venezuela have improved since March 2008, when a Colombian commando group briefly invaded northern Ecuador to kill a top FARC commander, prompting Chavez to briefly call up troops and tanks to Venezuela's border zone with Colombia.

But Colombian government officials have expressed their impatience for Chavez to follow through on promises to better patrol the frontier so the FARC rebels cannot seek haven in Venezuela.


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U.S., Asian envoys warn North Korea on nuke test miscalculation

-- Chris Kraul and Jenny Carolina Gonzalez

Photo: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at a news conference in Bogota in April. Credit: Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images  

Venezuela's Chavez breaks silence with lengthy phone call

Hugo Chavez

REPORTING FROM CARACAS, VENEZUELA, AND BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- After 10 days out of sight and with rumors swirling that he had died while undergoing cancer treatment in Cuba, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez made a half-hour telephone call to a state-run television  station, claiming reports of his demise were part of a “dirty war.”

“These are desperate rumors,” Chavez said. “I’m coming out fine from all the exams.”

Chavez announced in February that he had a recurrence of the cancer diagnosed last June, which he had previously declared to be in remission. He said Monday that his treatments were going well, and that he would return to Venezuela this weekend, possibly as early as Thursday.

The 57-year-old leader has undergone four rounds of chemotherapy and three surgeries to treat tumors in his pelvic area. He has never said precisely what kind of cancer he has, nor its exact location.

Chavez also dismissed the electoral prospects of Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate he will face in October. He said even polls conducted by canvassers not associated with the government are giving him a 20-point lead over Capriles.

He referred to Capriles as “majunche,” a term meaning someone of poor quality and no consequence. Capriles in recent days has accused Chavez of governing by Twitter, a reference to Chavez’s medical absences and the social medium the president uses frequently.

Chavez also took the opportunity to comment on the flight this month of a former judge, Eladio Aponte, to Costa Rica and then on to the United States in a U.S. government airplane. Aponte gave an interview to a U.S. Spanish-language television station saying that Chavez government officials had personally pressured him to release or go easy on suspected drug traffickers.

“This person is a delinquent,” Chavez said, denying Aponte’s charges that he had personally called the judge by adding that “eagles don’t hunt flies.”

The Venezuelan government had accused Aponte of complicity with suspected drug trafficker Walid Makled. Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said Aponte had “sold his soul” to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.


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 Pope Benedict XVI in Mexico urges faith in times of suffering

--Special correspondents Mery Mogollon in Caracas and Chris Kraul in Bogota

Photo: A picture provided by Venezuela's presidency shows President Hugo Chavez, center, and his daughter Rosa Virginia being welcomed by Cuban Vice President Jose Ramon Machado at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana on April 15. Credit: European Pressphoto Agency

Venezuela's Chavez has surgery in Cuba; no word on cancer spread

Poster of Hugo Chavez in Caracas, Venezuela

REPORTING FROM CARACAS, VENEZUELA, AND LOS ANGELES -- A statement issued by the Venezuelan government Tuesday said President Hugo Chavez had undergone surgery in Cuba with "a satisfactory result," but it left several questions unanswered, including whether his cancer had spread.

The statement said Chavez would need several days to recover and that results of tests from the surgery would be made public. It did not specify when.  

Chavez announced this month that tests had shown evidence of a lesion close to where a tumor was removed by Cuban doctors in June. He has never given the precise location nor the type of original tumor.

Weeks earlier, he had declared himself free of cancer.

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Venezuelan presidential campaign already heating up

Hugo chavez

REPORTING FROM CARACAS –- Venezuelans quickly got a taste of how nasty this year’s presidential campaign will be, as President Hugo Chavez speaking at a function in eastern Bolivar state on Wednesday, launched various broadsides at Henrique Capriles, winner of Sunday’s opposition primary.

“He is the anti-homeland candidate, capitalism’s candidate, the Yanquis’ candidate,” Chavez said, again hinting, as he has numerous times in recent months, that a change in government after the Oct. 7 election could bring chaos. “We are the guarantors of stability in this country, they are the ones of instability.”

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court ordered the opposition to turn over voting registries to the national electoral commission that the united anti-Chavez factions had promised to destroy so as to protect the identities of those who turned out at the polls.

The promise was made in response to widespread fears among anti-Chavistas  that Chavez opponents would be blackballed from government jobs and contracts. On Wednesday, Chavez denied any such allegations. “Stop using those fallacious arguments. Here there is no persecution.”

The court ordered police on Tuesday to seize records of some of the 3 million votes cast, after mayoral candidate Rafael Velasquez in Yaracuy state disputed the result. But the records already had been destroyed. El Universal newspaper reported that the president of the court then ruled that those responsible for the records now are subject to arrest.

The Capriles camp claims that Chavez is using state-controlled media to smear their candidate. In a blog posting on National Radio of Venezuela, a state-controlled station, the writer accused Capriles, who is born of Jewish parents but who is a practicing Catholic, of “representing our worst enemy, Zionism.”

On the TV show called La Hojilla broadcast over government channel Venezuelan TV, host Mario Silva in recent weeks frequently has described Capriles, a bachelor, as gay.


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-- Mery Mogollon and Chris Kraul

Photo: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez greets supporters Wednesday in Ciudad Bolivar. Credit: Associated Press / Miraflores Press Office 

Chavez holds parade to commemorate 1992 overthrow attempt

Hugo Chavez parade in Caracas, Venezuela.

REPORTING FROM CARACAS, VENEZUELA, AND BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- With a week to go before opposition candidates hold a primary election to determine his main opponent in October’s presidential election, Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez threw a military parade Saturday to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of his abortive coup.

On Feb. 4, 1992, then-army Lt. Col. Hugo Chavez led dissident troops in an attempt to overthrow President Carlos Andres Perez. The mutiny failed, Chavez surrendered and was later sentenced to prison. He was pardoned after two years’ confinement, and later mounted his successful 1998 presidential campaign. He recently marked the end of his 13th year in office.

Observers saw the parade, which included Russian tanks and high-tech weaponry, as an effort to fire up Chavez’s support base before the election, which could be Chavez’s toughest electoral test yet. Chavez, who has undergone surgery and chemotherapy for cancer diagnosed last June, looked somewhat bloated but otherwise in good form.

The guest list included Cuban President Raul Castro, as well as Evo Morales and Daniel Ortega, the leaders of Bolivia and Nicaragua, respectively. Actor Sean Penn, whose Haiti relief efforts have been supported by Chavez, arrived in Caracas on Friday night accompanying Haitian President Michel Martelly.

In a joint communique, opposition candidates slammed the parade, arguing that  commemorating an overthrow attempt was “anti-constitutional.” Former Defense Minister Fernando Ochoa Antich said the coup attempt was a “betrayal of the oath of a soldier,” noting that Chavez came to office not because of a coup but because he won a democratic election.

In a speech Thursday, Chavez said that “the opposition likes to say the armed forces should be purged of Chavistas. The armed forces of Venezuela are Chavista, whatever anyone says, whoever that bothers.”


Chavez closes Miami consulate in response to expulsion

China's Venezuela presence grows with loan-for-oil deal

Mexican ambassador and wife briefly kidnapped in Venezuela

-- Mery Mogollon and  Chris Kraul

Photo: Soldiers take part in military parade Feb. 4, 2012, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the failed coup attempt by President Hugo Chavez in Caracas, Venezuela. Credit: Ariana Cubillos / Associated Press

Mexican ambassador and wife briefly kidnapped in Venezuela

REPORTING FROM CARACAS, VENEZUELA, AND BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- In an incident that illustrates the security risks in Caracas, police in the Venezuelan capital confirmed that Mexico's ambassador and his wife were kidnapped and robbed late Sunday night and released unharmed early Monday morning.

The couple were detained as they drove their BMW in the affluent Country Club sector of eastern Caracas. Their car was later recovered in a Chapellin section of the metropolis. Details on the kidnapping were sketchy Monday morning.

Ambassador Carlos Pujalte and his wife, Paloma Ojeda, were not the first crime victims among the diplomatic corps in recent months. In November, Chilean consul Juan Carlos Fernandez suffered a gunshot wound and a beating in Caracas when he was the victim of an “express” kidnapping and held two hours by captors.

Earlier last year, Bolivia’s military attaché and a Mexican diplomat were briefly kidnapped and robbed in the Palos Grandes area, as was the son of the Vietnamese ambassador.

Caracas has become one of the world’ most violent cities in recent years. One civil society group that tracks violent crime counted 19,336 homicides in 2011 in all of Venezuela, up from 7,960 in 2001. “Since 2001, we have added 1,000 more murders every year,” said the group.

As for kidnappings, another victims advocacy group said a 2010 survey found that there were 16,917 victims in the year ended July 2009, several times the number reported in neighboring Colombia. The government’s official numbers acknowledge roughly one-tenth that number.

According to recent polls, crime is the most important issue for most Venezuelans, a trend that could cause trouble for President Hugo Chavez in his reelection bid in October. Opposition candidates have made crime and their approaches to reducing it prime issues in the primary campaign that culminates Feb. 12 with the nomination of Chavez’s chief opponent.


Video: Syrian forces reportedly attack Damascus suburb

Hamas' prime minister in Gaza embarks on trip to Iran

American activists in Cairo seek refuge at U.S. Embassy

--Mery Mogollon and Chris Kraul

Photo: Crime is expected to be a top issue among voters as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, shown at a gathering Friday, runs for reelection this year. He is holding the country's constitution in his hand, as he often does at public events. Credit:  David Fernandez / EPA

Chavez closes Miami consulate in response to expulsion

Hugo chavez
REPORTING FROM CARACAS, VENEZUELA, AND BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- In his State of the Union speech before Venezuela's National Assembly on Friday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez ordered the closing of his country's Miami consulate in retaliation, he said, for the Jan. 6 expulsion of Consul Livia Acosta, whom the U.S. declared persona non grata for allegedly discussing cyber attacks on U.S. government agencies.

However, in highly polarized Venezuela, Chavez opponents saw electoral politics at work in the consulate's shuttering.

Several critics said on their Twitter accounts Friday that the closing will make it harder, if not impossible, for the estimated 77,000 Venezuelans who reside in South Florida and who are registered to vote -- the majority of whom are thought to be Chavez opponents  -- to cast their ballots  in Venezuela's presidential election in October.

Although he described Acosta's expulsion as "hasty and abusive," Chavez told Assembly members that he would not play tit for tat.

"Allies have recommended that I expel U.S. diplomats who are in this country. I am not going to respond in such a way," Chavez said. "I know there are many functionaries here from that country who aren't conspiring."

The presidential campaign is heating up, and the primary election among opposition candidates to determine an opponent for Chavez will be held Feb. 12.  One of the five candidates is Assembly member  Maria Corinna Machado, who approached Chavez as he entered the congressional building to tell him that, next year, a woman would be wearing the presidential banner.

 "If one of you wins the election, I will be the first one to recognize it," Chavez told Machado. "I ask the same of you."

Chavez also said that one of his principal accomplishments in 2011 was to "lower tensions" with neighboring Colombia, noting that he has had several meetings with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. "We are disposed to have good relations with all countries, including the United States."

He also said he has beaten cancer, that his health is good and that his puffy appearance is related to his jogging 40 minutes each day and regularly lifting 160-pound weights.


Iranian president expected to visit Latin America

Venezuela to pay Exxon Mobil only $255 million of ruling

Cyber attacks strike networks in Brazil, revealing vulnerability across Latin America

-- Mery Mogollon in Caracas and Chris Kraul in Bogota

Photo: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez arrives at the National Assembly for his State of the Union address in Caracas on Jan. 13. Credit: Ariana Cubillos / Associated Press 








China's Venezuela presence grows with loan-for-oil deal

Hugo Chavez
REPORTING FROM CARACAS AND BOGOTA - China increased its claim on Venezuela's oil production this week with an additional $4 billion in loans, bringing to $30 billion the total owed by South America’s top oil-producing country, which is secured by future Venezuelan oil production.

To repay the debt, Venezuela now sends about 410,000 barrels of crude a day to China, or half the average 806,000 barrels per day that Venezuela sent to U.S. refineries in September, the last month for which Department of Energy figures are available. The country's average production is 2.3 million to 2.4 million barrels per day.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has said on numerous occasions that he wants to diminish and even eliminate oil sales to the U.S. altogether, and replace that market with China.

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