Updated: Tuesday, 10 Aug 2010, 7:26 PM MDT
Published : Tuesday, 10 Aug 2010, 7:26 PM MDT
SANTA MARTA, Colombia (AP) - The presidents of Colombia and Venezuela announced Tuesday they will restore diplomatic relations severed 20 days ago by Caracas, ending a dispute over allegations that Colombian rebels have camps in Venezuela.
The rapprochement came in a meeting between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Colombia's new leader, Juan Manuel Santos, in the city of Santa Marta on Colombia's Caribbean coast.
"We have decided that the two countries will re-establish diplomatic relations," Santos told reporters after the meeting. "President Chavez has said that he is not going to allow the presence of outlaw groups in his territory."
Chavez said the countries are starting down a new road after years of often prickly relations under Santos' predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, who repeatedly accused Chavez's socialst-oriented government of supporting the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and allowing its guerrillas to set up bases on Venezuelan territory.
Chavez denied the allegations and blasted Colombia's close ties with Washington and Uribe's decision to give U.S. troops more access to Colombian military bases in the war against drugs.
Santos, who was elected in a landslide and sworn in to office Saturday, was Uribe's defense minister. In the run-up to Colombia's presidential election Chavez expressed concern about the effect a Santos win would have on ties between the countries.
But those fears apparently were set aside Tuesday.
"I came here to turn the page, president ... and I think that the conversation we had was fraternal," Chavez said.
The latest flare-up in Venezuelan-Colombian tensions came July 22 when Chavez broke off diplomatic ties after Uribe's government publicly presented photos, videos and maps of what it said were Colombian rebel camps inside Venezuela. Chavez accused of Uribe of trying to stir up a war in his final days in office.
Colombia is fighting a bloody, decades-long conflict with the FARC and the smaller National Liberation Army. Uribe's government gained strong popularity by dealing blows to the guerrillas and reducing violence in his war-weary country.
Santos promised to continue Uribe's hard line against Colombia's rebels, but also said he would seek to repair ties with Venezuela.
Earlier Tuesday, the two presidents greeted each other at the gates of a colonial-era estate where 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar died. Chavez, who views Bolivar as the inspiration of his socialist movement, said it was appropriate to be making amends at a place he considers sacred.
With Santos taking a more conciliatory tone than Uribe, Chavez expressed optimism they would begin to "rebuild what was broken to pieces."
Chavez handed three red roses to Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin as he stepped off the plane. He expressed a desire to "build new and good relations."
The 56-year-old Venezuelan president also joked that Tuesday happened to be Santos' 35th birthday — in fact, the Colombian leader turned 59.
Hundreds of extra police beefed up security in Santa Marta, where the presidents met in private.
Trade between the countries fell sharply in the past year, in part because Chavez froze relations to protest Colombia's decision to grant the U.S. military expanded access to its military bases.
Analyst Laura Gil, a columnist for the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, said before the meeting: "It's a good start, but there should not be exaggerated hopes."
She predicted that attempts to rebuild lost trade and obtain the sort of security cooperation from Chavez that Colombia has long sought will be problematic.