BOGOTA - Colombia will not be provoked into armed conflict with Venezuela despite the neighboring country's aggressive rhetoric and its dynamiting of two cross-border pedestrian bridges, Colombia's defense minister said on Friday.
We will not be provoked. The insults bounce off us, Gabriel Silva told local radio a day after Venezuelan troops dynamited the two suspended wooden plank pathways connecting the countries.
Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez this month ordered his army to prepare for war after Colombia signed a military cooperation pact with Washington allowing U.S. troops increased access to its territory to run anti-narcotics surveillance flights.
Chavez says the agreement could set the stage for a U.S. invasion of oil-rich Venezuela, a claim that Washington and Bogota dismiss. He calls Colombian President Alvaro Uribe a traitor to the region for signing the deal.
Venezuela says the narrow bridges were illegally built and used by smugglers. But Colombia's Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling the destruction of the bridges an aggression against the civilian population and the frontier communities.
Tensions run high on the 1,375-mile (2,200-km) border, an area rife with Marxist Colombian rebels and other groups involved in smuggling cocaine, guns and other contraband.
Chavez has halted the import of some Colombian goods, clamping down on the $7 billion trade relationship between the countries. He refuses to meet with Uribe, calling him a Mafioso linked to right-wing paramilitary criminals.
Silva was to meet with military commanders on Friday near the Venezuelan border, but he said no troop build-up was planned.
What we cannot accept is aggression against the civilian population or against our territory. We are already prepared for that, Silva said.
Uribe, Washington's most reliable ally in left-tilting South America, is seen as a hero by many for attracting investment and making Colombia's cities and highways safer with his U.S.-backed crackdown on drug-running FARC guerrillas.
Chavez's popularity has slipped this year amid high inflation, electricity blackouts and water rationing. Critics say the fiery leader is stoking tensions with Colombia in a bid to divert attention from his domestic woes.
(Editing by Vicki Allen)