Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to forge unity in Latin America

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe will try to help bridge differences in Latin America on Thursday when he meets Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, whose anti-U.S. rhetoric and campaign to torpedo a U.S.-backed free trade proposal have divided the region. "The continent must seek paths toward unity," Uribe said in a radio interview Wednesday before he was to travel to the one-day talks in Paraguana, in Venezuela's northwest, expected to focus largely on joint energy projects.

Although the two are ideologically opposed, Uribe is a center-right president and close Washington ally, while Chavez is a fiery leftist who vilifies "the colossus to the north", they are said to get on well together and their nations are inextricably bound through trade and a shared border.

The meeting Thursday comes after a summit of leaders from across the Americas earlier this month ended in acrimony and without agreement on a proposal to restart talks on a U.S.-backed hemisphere-wide free trade zone.

Mexican President Vicente Fox pinned much of the blame for the failure on Chavez, who responded by calling Mexico an "ally of the empire" and warned Fox: "Don't mess with me." The two countries recalled their ambassadors after the war of words escalated.

Uribe on Wednesday said his country, which supports the free trade proposal _ much to Venezuela's chagrin, had tried to play "a conciliatory role" at the Nov. 4-5 summit in Argentina, and will continue to work to ease tensions.

"Colombia's policy in international relations will continue to be that of prudent, efficient discourse that produces results, fostering solidarity," he said in the interview when asked about relations with Venezuela and the United States.

Relations between the two countries have been testy with Colombian officials accusing Chavez of not doing enough to crack down on the flow of leftist rebels, arms and drugs across their shared border. Chavez counters that Venezuela has stepped up patrols along the remote border and is doing everything possible to block the movement of armed groups and drugs.

Colombia, however, has some leverage over its neighbor. Chavez has been using the windfall from record oil prices to provide benefits to the poor and dole out cheap oil to dozens of countries, in an apparent attempt to garner support for his self-styled "Bolivarian Revolution."

Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil producer, has been pressing Colombia to build a pipeline that would give Chavez crucial access to Colombia's Pacific ports, allowing him to ship more oil to Asian countries and away from the United States.

Uribe confirmed Thursday's talks will include the possible "construction of a pipeline that Venezuela requires to export oil to China via Colombia's Pacific coast."

The two countries tentatively agreed in 2004 to build a separate US$300 million (Ђ255 million) underwater gas pipeline that connecting Venezuela's western Paraguana peninsula with Colombia's La Guajira gas fields. The deal included the possibility of later extending the pipeline to Panama and other Central American nations, giving Venezuelan gas exports crucial access to the Pacific Ocean, reports the AP. I.L.

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