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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

A military and diplomatic crisis is deepening in South America, it involves Colombia, Ecuador - its neighbor to the southwest - and Venezuela, its neighbor to the northeast. On Saturday, Colombian troops launched a raid on rebel camps inside Ecuador. They killed 17 rebels including the second-ranking commander of the Marxist group, the FARC.

In response, both Ecuador and Venezuela have severed diplomatic ties with Colombia, and both countries have sent troops to their borders.

Chris Kraul of the Los Angeles Times is following the story from the Colombian capital, Bogota. And Mr. Kraul, explain please how the Colombian president, Alvaro Uribe is justifying this raid on Saturday into Ecuador.

CHRIS KRAUL: Well, initially, this was a Colombian operation that began on Colombian territory, but then spilled over into Ecuador. Uribe said the units that were looking for this rebel, Raul Reyes, received fire from (unintelligible) south of the borders. So in hot pursuit, Colombian troops and aircraft crossed over the line and killed this rebel leader. So the initial explanation and - the official explanation that Colombia has held to has been that it's - the situation is hot pursuit.

BLOCK: And does Ecuador buy that?

KRAUL: No. Ecuador sent a delegation to inspect the site and there were still victims there on the scene when they arrived Saturday, and found that - according to the Ecuadorian government - many of them seem to be in their pajamas. So the Ecuadorians reaction was, this could not have been hot pursuit. This is a preplanned operation.

BLOCK: Colombia has also claimed that Ecuador has been helping these FARC guerillas - meeting with them, working out ways to accommodate them inside Ecuadorian territory.

KRAUL: Right. That's one of the revelations that has emerged since this operation. They recovered three laptops that this rebel leader had. And according to Colombian police, they demonstrate that there were ongoing talks, relations between the rebels and the Ecuadorian government; that the interior minister, Gustavo Larrea, had met with Reyes a time or two. Apparently, the laptops are just a treasure trove of details in how the FARC managed external relations. One of the revelations is that it received $300 million from Hugo Chavez.

BLOCK: Which brings us to Venezuela. As we said, Ecuador has sent troops to the border. And on the other side of Colombia, Venezuela has, too. Why is Venezuela involved?

KRAUL: Well, the people in Venezuela are asking that question - why is Hugo Chavez mobilizing troops? He says he's doing it to defend against the possible incursion such as the one that the Colombian military forces carried out in Ecuador. But his opponents in Venezuela say it's merely to distract the attention of Venezuelans who are increasingly suffering from boo scares from this high crime and the lack of basic services.

BLOCK: Do you think there's the real threat of military action on either one of these borders?

KRAUL: I think the chances are smaller at this point. The three countries have enjoyed pretty good relations for decades, centuries. So the idea that there could be a real shooting war is not something people want to contemplate. And at this point, it seems a very remote possibility, but as days go on we'll have to watch.

BLOCK: Let's talk about some of the allegiances here. President Bush today came out and said that the U.S. will stand by the Colombian president, President Uribe. He criticized what he called provocative maneuvers by the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. Where do all these players line up?

KRAUL: Well, Bush may find himself alone. Sovereignty is a hot issue in South America. They have are borders - it's all over the place. So it's an issue that leaders care about and know they have to uphold in public. So - and for that reason, most countries have come down on the side of Ecuador in this dispute.

BLOCK: Okay. Chris Kraul, thanks very much for talking with us.

KRAUL: Thank you.

BLOCK: Chris Kraul with the Los Angeles Times, speaking with us from Bogota.

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