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.
-- 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