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Chavez threatens to cut trade ties with Colombia

MOSCOW, December 11 (RIA Novosti) - Venezuela's president has threatened to sever trade relations with Colombia over disagreements with the country's president, Venezuelan daily Nacional said on Tuesday.

The paper quoted Hugo Chazez as saying that trade ties, which this year could amount to $5 billion, would be hurt, and that from now on, "rather than making purchases in Colombia, I am choosing Brazil."

Relations between the two countries deteriorated in late November, when Chavez accused his Colombian counterpart Alvaro Uribe of telling lies.

Uribe responded by saying that Chavez wanted to legitimize guerrilla groups in Colombia and had expansionist aims.

Chavez announced in November that his country would freeze relations with Colombia after Uribe moved to end the president's role in negotiating the release of hostages.

Uribe said that Chavez would no longer be involved in mediation with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) on the release of dozens of foreign hostages, after the Venezuelan president allegedly broke protocol by directly contacting the Colombian army chief, General Mario Montoya.

Despite their strong ideological differences, the two South American leaders had until now maintained a cordial and pragmatic relationship.

Chavez was invited by Colombian authorities in mid-September to broker the release of foreign hostages and a former Columbian presidential candidate.

Chavez also angered his Colombian counterpart by meeting with a top FARC commander in Caracas on November 8, and by publicly revealing details of a conversation with Uribe, who he said had privately expressed his willingness to meet with the head of FARC, Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda.

FARC, a communist revolutionary group considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, continues to hold dozens of foreign hostages, including French-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt, who ran for president in Colombia in 2002. She has been held prisoner for almost four years.

Three U.S. citizens - Marc Gonsalves, Tom Howes, and Keith Stansell - were captured by FARC rebels in early 2003.

FARC wants the release of 500 imprisoned rebels in exchange for 45 hostages, but until last month the group had not provided any evidence the captives were still alive.

In a military operation three FARC suspects were arrested and government troops seized videos, letters and photos which showed the hostages were still alive, although some were in evidently poor health.

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