Venezuela to 'freeze' ties

CARACAS: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez decided to "freeze" relations with neighboring Colombia and recall his envoy over accusations from Bogota that Caracas has links to Colombia's FARC Marxist guerillas.

The move threatens to suspend billions of dollars in trade, and Chavez warned that Colombian-owned operations in Venezuela could be seized.

"In view of this new aggression by the government of Colombia I have ordered the withdrawal of our ambassador to Bogota," Chavez said on state television.

"We will freeze relations with Colombia," the leftist leader added.

Tensions have risen dramatically in recent weeks between Caracas and Bogota, notably over Colombia's announcement that it had agreed to a new pact with Venezuela's regional nemesis the United States to allow it to use military bases to conduct anti-drug operations.

And on Monday, Bogota said it had captured weapons from FARC -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Latin America's oldest and largest insurgency -- that had been produced in Sweden and sold to Venezuela.

Chavez cited recent statements by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Vice President Francisco Santos in which they accused Caracas, "without proof" according to Chavez, of supplying arms to the rebels.

The firebrand Chavez warned that Venezuela would suspend Colombian imports to his country, which official data show amounted to 2.62 billion dollars in the first half of 2009.

And Chavez threatened to "expropriate" Colombian-owned ventures in Venezuela if Bogota's "aggressions" continue, he said.

"With the next aggression against Venezuela, we will simply break relations with the Colombian government on all fronts."

Officials in Stockholm confirmed that some arms produced in Sweden and sold to Venezuela were found in a FARC camp in Colombia, and the Swedish government called on Caracas to explain how the weapons wound up in the hands of the rebels.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said Caracas would respond "at the appropriate time" to the "new lies" being leveled at Chavez's government.

Maduro said Colombia was trying to "place the blame on foreigners" for a conflict "that the authorities in Bogota have the responsibility to resolve."

The dispute over the FARC weapons is the latest spat in an increasingly dangerous friction between Venezuela and Colombia, a close US ally in the region.

Sparks flew on July 15 when Bogota announced that the United States was to use three bases in Colombia as staging areas for Washington's anti-drug operations.

Chavez last week alleged "a Yankee military force" was planning to invade his country from Colombia.

Venezuela and Colombia nearly went to war last year after Colombian forces raided a FARC camp just across the border with Ecuador in late March 2008.

Bogota claims computer hard drives and flash drives recovered in the raid showed Chavez had links to both the FARC and the illegal drug trade.

Quito and Caracas broke diplomatic ties with Bogota over the action. Chavez had restored ties with Colombia, but Ecuador has not.

Chavez's new call to freeze ties comes a day after he announced an enhanced military partnership with ally Russia.

He confirmed the purchase of Russian-made BMP3, MPR and T-72 tanks to replace Venezuela's obsolete fleet of armored vehicles and to reinforce the country's border with Colombia.

"We have no plans to attack anyone. We only want to defend ourselves," Chavez said Monday.