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FARC extortion rackets in Venezuela, say locals

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The Colombian military's efforts to drive the leftist guerrillas from its eastern region during the past 44 years have pushed the guerrillas into the mountains and jungles on the border with Venezuela. Colombian officials claim that FARC rebels operate from bases in Venezuela and Ecuador. A March 1 raid on a FARC camp in Ecuador killed the No. 2 rebel commander, Raul Reyes.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has sent mixed signals on the FARC. Five months ago, he called on the US and Europe to take the FARC off their lists of "terrorist" groups. Mr. Chávez has denied that there are any FARC bases in his country. But earlier this week, in an abrupt turnaround, Chávez distanced himself from the FARC, calling on the rebels to end their struggle and surrender their hostages in "exchange for nothing."

"The guerrilla war is history," Chávez said Sunday, during his weekly television and radio program. "At this moment in Latin America, an armed guerrilla movement is out of place."

But in the state of Táchira, opposition politician Leomagno Flores says that "Chávez gives protection to these Colombian guerrillas. The relationship with Chávez and FARC is not only in the computer of Raul Reyes – it's here."

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