CARACAS (Reuters) - Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa said on Monday that Colombia’s president-elect Juan Manuel Santos could be arrested if he visited Ecuador because of an outstanding warrant against him.
An Ecuadorean court ordered Santos’ arrest for the 2008 Colombian bombing of a FARC rebel camp in neighbouring Ecuador when he was Colombia’s defence minister. Diplomatic ties in the Andean region have not fully recovered from the raid.
The leftist Correa told Reuters in an interview in Caracas that the case was in the hands of the independent judiciary and that Santos, who takes office in August, would not be able to go to Ecuador until the issue was resolved.
“It’s a shame but he won’t be able to do it while the arrest warrant exists and the file is open,” Correa said. “The justice system is independent and I can’t do anything.”
Correa said he planned to attend Santos’ inauguration ceremony, “if I am invited.”
Bogota has said it does not accept the jurisdiction of Ecuador’s courts to judge its officials.
Ecuador broke relations with Colombia following the raid two years ago that killed a top FARC commander, Raul Reyes, along with 23 people at his camp.
The attack was a crucial victory for Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s crushing campaign against the guerrillas, who have been at war with the Colombian government for decades.
“Imagine if England bombed Spain or France — would it not be tense?” Correa asked.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who ordered tanks to the border with Colombia in protest of the raid, has since limited trade with Bogota because neighbouring Colombia agreed to host U.S. troops at a group of military bases.
Colombia says the agreement will help its fight against guerrillas and drug traffickers but Chavez sees it as a threat to regional stability and his government.
“The situation has calmed down a lot, especially because of the apologies that Colombia has offered,” Correa said in an interview. “But the violence in Colombia is still a reason for concern, its civil war and the North American bases.
“On top of it all, they lend seven bases to a foreign power, that is a focus of instability in the region.
Ecuador and Colombia have taken some steps to restoring normal relations but do not have ambassadors in place, a situation Correa blamed on foot-dragging by Bogota.
“They owe us information that they promised to deliver about the bombing and some computers and this has not been carried out,” Correa said.
Tensions flared again last week when an Ecuadorean newspaper published accusations that Colombia’s DAS intelligence agency had spied on Correa and other top officials following the raid. Correa threatened to break relations again over the accusations but has since softened his stance.
“We accept the explanations that there was no spying but obviously it is being investigated,” he said, adding that it was possible the accusation was spread by a disgruntled member of the DAS, which is being disbanded because of a wiretapping scandal.
A U.S. and Belgian-trained economist, Correa said the economy in the country of 14 million people will grow strongly in 2010, although slightly less than an earlier official forecast of 6.8 percent.
He did not give a new figure and blamed the drop on a contraction in the oil sector, where production and investment by private companies has fallen because of uncertainty about new contracts.
“We will probably grow a little less if the oil sector fails us as I think the private oil sector will fail,” he said. In 2009, Ecuador’s economy grew by 0.36 percent. In the first quarter it grew 0.60 percent.
Correa said the non-oil sector was growing strongly in OPEC’s smallest member and that unemployment was falling.
For the past two years Correa has been trying to sign new contracts with oil companies, limiting their participation to service deals. A new law passing through Congress will give private companies 120 days to sign the contracts or face expropriation with compensation.
Correa said any expropriated projects would not necessarily be nationalized and that they could be offered to other private firms or other countries’ state-run companies.
“We do not rule out giving them to third companies, either private or from friendly countries, as long as they invest in exploration.
“The only reason for a foreign company to be working in Ecuador is for exploration, that is to say to make risky investments — because the extraction we can do ourselves.”
The president said with a wide grin that all the companies had said they would reach an agreement with the government.
Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Bill Trott