CARACAS - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who for years has had tense relations with neighboring Colombia, warned Sunday of worse ties and even possible military hostilities if Bogota's ex-defense chief Juan Manuel Santos wins the presidency.
A victory by Santos in the May 30 presidential election "could lead to war" in the region, said Chavez on his "Hello Mr. President" weekly television and radio broadcast.
The firebrand leftist leader also demanded that the conservative candidate, a close political ally of current president Alvaro Uribe, issue an apology for a Colombian military attack during his tenure as defense minister on a leftist guerrilla encampment on Colombia's border with Ecuador two years ago.
"If he wants to be president, he should start by saying 'I'm sorry,' and ask forgiveness" for the bombing raid," Chavez said.
For his part, Santos -- whose family owns the El Tiempo daily, Colombia's most influential newspaper -- told AFP in an interview Sunday that Chavez should butt out of Colombia's election campaign.
"What the Colombian people do not accept is interference in their elections," he said.
He added that he and Chavez "think very differently but we each have one obligation vis a vis our people. And that is to respect our differences."
Under Colombian law, Uribe, who already has served two terms, cannot stand for reelection.
His would-be successor Santos is accused by Ecuador and Venezuela of having carried out a March 2008 air raid on the clandestine militant encampment that killed the number two official of the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Raul Reyes.
Meanwhile, a court in Ecuador was to issue a ruling on Monday as to whether it will allow justice authorities to act on an arrest warrant that has been issued against Santos in connection with that bombing raid.
During a campaign debate last week, the former defense minister expressed "pride in having defended the sovereignty and security of Colombians," including the controversial bombing.
Colombia is the top regional ally of the United States in the fight against drug-trafficking, and attempts to contain the influence of the leftist-populist Chavez.
With respect to the US use of Colombia's military bases for anti-narcotics operations -- a deal that was met with fierce opposition by leftist governments throughout Latin America, including Venezuela -- Santos on Sunday reiterated the current government's line that there is nothing to fear from the agreement.
"Read the accord and you will see that there is nothing that would give you or anyone else reason to fear... that Colombian territory will be used for an act of aggression," Santos said in a message rhetorically directed at Chavez.
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