CARACAS, Venezuela President Hugo Chavez ordered tanks and thousands of troops on Sunday to the border with Colombia, accusing it of pushing South America to the brink of war by killing a top rebel leader on Ecuadorean soil.
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa also ordered troops to the Colombian border, saying "Ecuadorean territory has been outraged and bombed by an air attack and the later incursion of (Colombian) troops."
On Saturday, Colombian security forces killed senior rebel leader Raul Reyes and 16 other Colombian guerrillas at a camp across the border in Ecuador.
Correa said on Saturday that Colombian President Alvaro Uribe had informed him of the raid but later announced that he was misled after Ecuadorean officials inspected a bombed rebel camp.
Colombian officials have long complained that Ecuador's military does not control its sparsely populated border, allowing rebels to take refuge on its territory. The same holds true for Venezuela, where rebel deserters say the guerrillas routinely rest, train, obtain medical care and smuggle drugs.
Chavez denies that his country provides refuge to the FARC.
In protest of Colombia's raid, Ecuador recalled its ambassador from Bogota but said commercial ties would remain unaffected. A spokesman for Uribe, Cesar Mauricio Velasquez, announced Sunday that Colombia would apologize to Ecuador for the military incursion on its territory.
Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, said the rebels were "bombed and massacred as they slept, using precision technology." He said Colombia's military violated Ecuador's airspace and that the camp bombed was 1.2 miles from the border.
Ecuadorean soldiers recovered the bodies of 15 rebels in their jungle camp, and found three wounded guerrillas.
Lt. Col. Jose Nunez told reporters in the remote village of Angostura, where the bodies were found, that officials determined there were two bomb attacks on the camp early Saturday.
Before the Ecuadoreans arrived, Colombian commandos removed the cadavers of Reyes and one other rebel.
Chavez called the raid "cowardly murder, all of it coldly calculated."
"This could be the start of a war in South America," Chavez said. He warned Uribe: "If it occurs to you to do this in Venezuela, President Uribe, I'll send some Sukhois" Russian warplanes recently bought by Venezuela.
He called Uribe a "lapdog" of Washington, saying "Dracula's fangs (are) are covered in blood."
Neither Colombia's foreign minister nor the country's military leadership would comment on Chavez's actions when asked by reporters on Sunday in Bogota as they departed a funeral for the lone Colombian soldier killed in Saturday's raid.
Chavez has increasingly revealed his sympathies for the FARC. In January, Chavez asked that it be struck from lists of terrorist groups internationally.
His Sunday announcement pushes tense relations with Colombia to a new nadir, though cross-border trade, worth some US$5 billion (euro3 billion) annually, has not yet been seriously affected.
It could not be determined whether troops had yet been mobilized for the border. Chavez did not specify how many he was sending. A Venezuelan battalion traditionally has roughly 600 soldiers.
The peasant-based FARC has been fighting Colombia's government for more than four decades, seeking a more equitable distribution of wealth. It funds itself largely through the cocaine trade and kidnaps for ransom and political ends.
Reyes was the FARC's key interlocutor with journalists and with foreign governments trying to mediate in the conflict, and thus the member of its leadership most vulnerable to being located, though eavesdropping or other intelligence.
In Texas, U.S. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said of Chavez's latest moves: "This is an odd reaction by Venezuela to Colombia's efforts against the FARC, a terrorist organization that continues to hold Colombians, Americans and others hostage."
Colombia did not deny it attacked the FARC on Ecuadorean soil.
Its defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, said Colombian commandos, tracking Reyes through an informant, first bombed a camp on the Colombian side of the Ecuadorean border. He said the troops came under fire from across the border in Ecuador and encountered Reyes' body when they overran that camp.
How exactly Reyes was killed was not immediately clear.
In a statement, Colombia said FARC "terrorists" including Reyes "have had the custom of killing in Colombia and taking refuge in the territory of neighboring countries."
After observing a moment of silence during his program Sunday in honor of the slain rebels, he praised Reyes as "a true revolutionary," recalling meeting the former trade union leader in Brazil in 1995.
Chavez called Uribe's government "the Israel of Latin America," criticizing the Jewish state's military strikes on Palestinian militants.
"We aren't going to permit Colombia to become the Israel of these lands," he declared. "We have to liberate Colombia" from U.S. dominance, he added.
Colombia and Venezuela have been locked in a diplomatic crisis since Uribe sought in November to halt Chavez's efforts to mediate a prisoner swap. The FARC has since freed six hostages to delegates of Chavez, including four released last week.
The FARC has demanded that a safe zone be created in Colombia to negotiate a swap of some 40 high-value captives, including former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. defense contractors, for hundreds of imprisoned guerrillas.