July 29, 2019 / 3:04 AM / 20 days ago

Maduro says missing FARC leaders are 'welcome in Venezuela'

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Sunday said two former FARC commanders from neighboring Colombia whose whereabouts are unknown were “welcome in Venezuela,” a statement likely to fuel criticism that he is providing a safe haven for armed groups.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks at a meeting of the Sao Paulo Forum in Caracas, Venezuela, July 28, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

Speaking alongside Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel at the closing ceremony of the Sao Paulo Forum, a gathering of regional leftist politicians and activists, Maduro called Ivan Marquez and Jesus Santrich “leaders of peace.”

Santrich and Marquez - the war aliases used by Seuxis Paucias Hernandez and Luciano Marin, respectively - both joined the FARC’s political party after the leftist rebel group demobilized under a 2016 peace deal that ended decades of civil war.

But Marquez went missing last year after his nephew was arrested and taken to the United States to cooperate with drug-trafficking investigators. And earlier this month, Colombia’s Supreme Court ordered Santrich’s arrest after he failed to appear for questioning about U.S. drug-trafficking charges.

Colombian President Ivan Duque later suggested Santrich may have fled to Venezuela. Maduro said he had learned of Santrich’s possible presence in Venezuela from Duque’s statement.

“They had announced that Ivan Marquez and Jesus Santrich were coming, and I was left waiting,” Maduro said. “Ivan Marquez and Jesus Santrich are welcome in Venezuela and at the Sao Paulo Forum, the two of them are leaders of peace.”

Colombian authorities believe dissident FARC rebels and fighters for leftist rebel National Liberation Army (ELN) are hiding in Venezuela and receiving protection from Maduro, according to a military intelligence report seen by Reuters. Maduro’s government has denied protecting Colombian rebels.

Tensions between the neighboring countries have worsened since Duque joined the United States and most Latin American countries in recognizing Juan Guaido, president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, as the rightful leader, arguing Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

Maduro, who calls Guaido a U.S. puppet seeking to oust him in a coup, broke off diplomatic relations with Bogota in February after Guaido’s failed attempt to bring humanitarian aid into Venezuela through the Colombian border.

Maduro also said that two other FARC leaders, Timochenko and Pablo Catatumbo, were welcome in Venezuela.

Reporting by Deisy Buitrago and Luc Cohen; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

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