22 December 2009
Colombia launches US drones over Venezuela – or was that 'Santa's sleigh'?

By Jonathan Adams
Christian Science Monitor

After claiming that Venezuelan soldiers saw a US drone fly overhead a few days ago, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez ordered the military to shoot down the 'Yankee technology' next time. Colombia's defense minister said Venezuelan soldiers may have seen 'Father Christmas's sleigh.'

Colombia on Monday dismissed claims that it had sent spy drones over neighboring Venezuela, with the defense minister joking that perhaps Venezuelans had seen Santa's sleigh.

The denial came after Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez accused Colombia of launching US-made spy drones over Venezuelan territory, in the latest sign of worsening tensions between the two South American neighbors.

Colombian officials said they do not have the capability to launch the drones described by Chavez, the Associated Press reported.

Colombian Defense Minister Gabriel Silva and armed forces commander Freddy Padilla told reporters Monday that Colombian aircraft couldn't fly the kind of espionage mission described by Chavez.

"Colombia doesn't have that capability," said Silva. He quipped that perhaps "Venezuelan soldiers mistook Father Christmas' sleigh for a spy plane."

Padilla said Colombia has only small, unmanned surveillance planes that it uses to monitor pipelines and other installations against sabotage by rebel groups.

On Sunday, Mr. Chavez gave details in his radio address about the alleged spy plane flight, and ordered any such planes to be shot down in the future, according to the Venezuela daily El Universal.

"A few days ago, at midnight, one of these unmanned aircraft flew over the military garrison of Fuerte Mara [state of Zulia, western Venezuela]; our soldiers saw it; they called the on-duty officer, but the aircraft left, disappeared," the Venezuelan Head of State said on Sunday in its weekly program Aló Presidente.

"It was a small plane, two or three meters long; it is operated by remote control, but it films everything and it is able to throw bombs. That is the Yankee technology. Last night (Saturday), I ordered: 'Shoot down any little plane which shows up.'"

Also on Sunday, Colombia's defense minister said his country was preparing defenses against a military attack, according to the Colombia Reports website.
Colombia last week activated seven new army battalions, including two along its border with Venezuela, according to the website.

Tensions between the South American neighbors have worsened after Colombia and the US signed a deal giving US troops greater access to seven Colombian military bases. (See map here).

The two countries insist US troops are in Colombia only for the purpose of helping anti-drug efforts. But Venezuela sees a growing threat.

Last month, Chávez ordered his military onto a war footing.

The two countries nearly went to war in 1987 over a disputed sea border, and almost came to blows again in 2008 after Colombia raided a FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebel camp in Ecuador. In August, Colombia accused Venezuela of supplying FARC rebels with shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons.

Global Network