Caracas, Venezuela President Hugo Chavez ordered tanks and thousands of troops on Sunday to the border with Colombia, accusing it of pushing South America to the brink of war by killing a top rebel leader on Ecuadorean soil.
Denouncing Colombia's slaying of the rebel commander in a cross-border raid into Ecuador, Chavez said Venezuela will respond militarily if Colombia violates its border. He ordered Venezuela's embassy in Bogota closed.
"Mr. Defense Minister, move 10 battalions to the border with Colombia for me, immediately - tank battalions. Deploy the air force," Chavez said during his weekly TV and radio program. "We don't want war, but we aren't going to permit the U.S. empire, which is the master (of Colombia) ... to come divide us."
Chavez called Colombian President Alvaro Uribe "a criminal" and branded his government a "terrorist state," likening it to Israel for its U.S.-backed attacks on militants.
In protest, Ecuador withdrew its ambassador from Bogota, ordered Colombia's top diplomat expelled and ordered the mobilization of troops to the border with Colombia.
Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, said Colombia deliberately carried out the strike beyond its borders. "There is no justification," Correa said Sunday night, snubbing an earlier announcement from Colombia that it would apologize for the incursion.
Colombian officials have long complained that Ecuador's military does not control its sparsely populated border, allowing rebels to take refuge.
The same holds true for Venezuela, where rebel deserters say the guerrillas routinely rest, train, obtain medical care and smuggle drugs. Chavez denies that his country provides refuge to the FARC.
In a statement, Colombia said FARC "terrorists" including Reyes "have had the custom of killing in Colombia and taking refuge in the territory of neighboring countries."
Correa said the rebels were "bombed and massacred as they slept, using precision technology." He said Colombia violated Ecuador's airspace when it bombed the rebel camp, which the Colombian military said was located 1.1 miles from the border.
Ecuadorean soldiers recovered the semi-nude bodies of 15 rebels in their jungle camp. Soldiers stood guard at the site, saying they also found three wounded women, who were evacuated by helicopter to be treated. One was a Mexican philosophy student injured by shrapnel, while the other two wounded guerrillas were Colombians, an Ecuadorean army officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to journalists.
Ecuadorean officials found that there were two bomb attacks on the camp early Saturday, Lt. Col. Jose Nunez told reporters in the remote village of Angostura, where the bodies were found.
Colombian commandos removed the bodies of Reyes and one other rebel.
Chavez called the raid "cowardly murder, all of it coldly calculated."
The situation tested already tense relations between Venezuela and Colombia, though cross-border trade has not yet been seriously affected.
Chavez did not specify how many troops were being sent to the border. A Venezuelan battalion traditionally has roughly 600 soldiers.
"Undoubtedly the recent actions on the part of Colombia and Venezuela's response raise the risk for armed conflict," said Miguel Tinker Salas, a Latin American studies professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California. "Although it is unlikely we will see military confrontations, what is clear is that Colombia has been pursuing a military solution to its own internal problem ... drawing in Ecuador and Venezuela."
Chavez has increasingly revealed his sympathies for the FARC, and in January asked that it be struck from lists of terrorist groups internationally.
The leftist FARC has been fighting Colombia's government for more than four decades and funds itself largely through the cocaine trade and kidnaps for ransom and political ends.
Chavez said that with U.S. support, Colombian troops "invaded Ecuador, flagrantly violating Ecuador's sovereignty."
In Texas, U.S. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said of Chavez's latest moves: "This is an odd reaction by Venezuela to Colombia's efforts against the FARC, a terrorist organization that continues to hold Colombians, Americans and others hostage."