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Colombia chief defends raid

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BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombia's president says he repeatedly asked Ecuador to deal with Colombian rebels operating from its territory before he ordered the cross-border raid that has set off an international crisis.

The fallout is mounting: Venezuela threatened to slash trade and nationalize Colombian-owned businesses. Venezuela and Ecuador have sent troops to their borders with Colombia. And on Thursday, Nicaragua broke off diplomatic relations with Colombia.

Latin American foreign ministers met in the Dominican Republican in hopes of finding a way to calm the region's tensest flare-up in years, and the presidents of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and at least nine other nations were flying in to join them.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's defense of his actions came during a three-hour session with news media representatives Wednesday night, but his office did not authorize release of his comments until Thursday.

The conservative leader expressed frustration at what he called inaction by Ecuador's leftist government over Colombian guerrilla camps in its territory.

"What does one do when bandits are shooting from the other side and the government doesn't do anything?" Uribe asked. "It's my job to defend 43 million Colombians."

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa retorted that by Uribe's logic, other Latin American countries would have to launch strikes in Colombia because of alleged ties between some officials and drug traffickers and right-wing paramilitaries.

"They wouldn't just have to bomb the Colombian jungle, but Colombia's parliament and senate, and probably its Narino House (presidential palace), where paramilitaries and drug traffickers apparently hide," Correa said during a press conference in Nicaragua alongside leftist ally President Daniel Ortega.

Earlier, Correa said his troops have raided dozens of rebel camps, but Colombian officials say the guerrillas are always tipped off so they can escape. Uribe said he didn't notify Correa of Saturday's attack because "I was sure that the operation would have failed."

Uribe said the raid was the sixth since his 2002 election that was aimed at Raul Reyes, a top leader in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Reyes was one of the 24 people killed.

Uribe refused to rule out more military incursions into Ecuador or Venezuela, saying he first needs assurances from Correa and his Venezuelan ally, leftist President Hugo Chavez, that they are not harboring rebels.

But Uribe stressed that he doesn't want war with any of his neighbors — that the thought "doesn't even cross our minds."

Venezuela and Ecuador have each sent thousands of soldiers to their borders with Colombia, but Uribe repeated that he won't mobilize troops from Colombia's army, which is bigger than both of his neighbors' combined.

Nicaragua broke off relations with Colombia over the attack inside Ecuador. Ortega is a strong ally of Chavez and Correa, and Nicaragua has a long-standing maritime boundary dispute with Colombia.

"We are breaking off relations because of the political terrorism being carried out by the government of Alvaro Uribe, not because of the Colombian people," Ortega said during a visit by Correa.

Chavez, who has long criticized Uribe for being allied with the United States, said he would squeeze Venezuela's $6 billion in annual trade with Colombia.

"We aren't interested in Colombian investments here," he said, adding: "Of the Colombian businesses that are here in Venezuela, we could nationalize some."

That could create economic havoc, especially in Venezuela, which is already plagued by shortages of basic foods from milk to chicken and imports Colombian food products. But Chavez said Venezuelans can no longer depend on Colombia, "not even for a grain of rice."

Colombia's finance minister said a cutoff in trade could cost his country 100,000 jobs.

Chavez and Correa welcomed a resolution by the Organization of American States on Wednesday that called the attack a violation of Ecuador's sovereignty, but the OAS did not explicitly condemn Colombia as they had demanded.

In the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo, foreign ministers of the 20-nation Rio Group searched for a "peaceful, negotiated solution," Bolivia's foreign minister said. Presidents are to face off there Friday.

"I do hope there will be a diplomatic outcome to this," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Belgium. She added that she hoped to win support from the leaders of Brazil and Chile when she travels to South America next week.

Colombia contends documents in a laptop belonging to Reyes found at the attacked base indicate close rebel ties to Correa and Chavez. Correa counters that Reyes' slaying stymied the imminent release of 12 FARC-held hostages that he claims his government was negotiating.

Chavez, who has helped free six hostages this year, said Thursday that his efforts won't stop.

"In spite of everything, and no matter what happens, we will continue struggling ... for the liberation of all the hostages in the hands of the FARC, for the liberation of our much-loved Ingrid Betancourt," Chavez said, referring to the French-Colombian politician held for six years.

Meanwhile, some 40,000 people took part in a Bogota march for victims of Colombia's long-running conflict that had a decidedly anti-Uribe flavor. Many criticized the president's no-holds-barred military campaign and the right-wing paramilitary groups formed to counter the guerrillas.

"Uribe is the one who has always wanted war — and the United States, too," said one marcher, Jorge Sanchez, 53.

An anti-guerrilla march organized on Facebook and supported by Uribe drew millions last month.