The Big Question: Why has Colombia invaded Ecuador, and why is Venezuela joining the fight?

Why are we asking this now?

At the weekend the Colombian army crossed the border into Ecuador to kill a Colombian rebel leader, and 16 other guerrillas, who were sheltering there. The move outraged the government in Ecuador, which broke off diplomatic relations with its neighbour and helicoptered 3,000 of its own troops to the border area.

Colombia’s other neighbour, Venezuela, also reacted. It also expelled Colombia’s diplomats and ordered thousands of troops, tanks and fighter jets to the border. Venezuela’s fiery president, Hugo Chavez, also warned that war could break out if Colombia crossed into Venezuelan soil. It is the worst diplomatic crisis in Latin America for many years.

So what really happened?

The Colombians say they first bombed a rebel camp on their own side of the border. They claim that rebels hiding across the border in Ecuador fired on them, so they crossed the border to fight back.

The Ecuadorean president, Rafael Correa, called that account an outright lie: “It was a massacre,” he said. The Colombian troops were backed by military planes, suggesting the raid was pre-ordained. When Ecuadorean troops reached the rebel camp they found the rebels were killed in their sleep “in their pyjamas”. The rebels were “bombed and massacred as they slept, using precision technology.” Colombian military sources seemed to corroborate this by revealing that US intelligence helped target the rebels by disclosing that the rebel’s deputy leader, Raul Reyes, was sporadically using a satellite telephone, whose signal could be pinpointed.

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