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Venezuela, Colombia on the mend

Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Colombia's Alvaro Uribe mended relations Friday after months of sniping that threatened billions of dollars in trade and unleashed a diplomatic crisis between Latin America's top U.S. opponent and its closest U.S. ally.

Chavez, who just months ago called reconciliation impossible, said the talks allowed the two to “completely turn the page after the storm that passed.”

“From today on begins a new era,” Chavez said after the closed-door talks. “We're destined to be together.”

Despite their deep differences, Uribe said “we're brothers” and gave Chavez a book about South American independence hero Simon Bolivar during their talks at the Paraguana oil refining complex on the Caribbean coast.

It was their first one-on-one meeting since August.

Analysts say the two are setting aside their on-and-off feud because each benefits politically from normalized relations. The countries are key commercial partners, with $6 billion in trade last year, and the leaders pledged to link the Andean neighbors with a new railway.

Relations sank to their lowest point in decades in March after Colombia attacked a rebel camp in Ecuador. Chavez responded by briefly dispatching troops to Venezuela's border with Colombia, pulling his ambassador and threatening to cut back trade. Chavez later restored relations, something Ecuador's leftist government hasn't done.

Uribe said he hopes relations can be restored as soon as possible with Ecuador's leftist government.

During a feud over Chavez's mediation role with Colombian rebels earlier this year, the Venezuelan president called Uribe a “pawn of the U.S. empire” and likened him to a mafia boss. “A man like that doesn't deserve to be the president of a country – coward, liar!” Chavez said.

Colombia, meanwhile, accused Chavez of offering an open-ended loan of at least $250 million to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC – charges bolstered by documents Uribe's government said were retrieved from a laptop at the bombed guerrilla camp. Bogota officials also say Venezuela has long harbored several rebel leaders.

Chavez denies the accusations.

Chavez made reconciliation easier for Uribe last month when he called on the FARC to disarm and give up its hostages – after previously urging world leaders to consider the FARC a legitimate army of insurgents.

Through Chavez's mediation, the guerrillas freed six hostages earlier this year.

But the FARC said subsequently that it was finished with unilateral releases. Then Colombia's military rescued 15 rebel-held hostages – including three Americans and former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt – last week. The rescue pushed Uribe's already immense popularity to new highs.

In Colombia on Friday, the FARC issued a statement condemning what it called the “betrayal” of two guerrillas who had been responsible for the 15 hostages freed by Colombian soldiers. The FARC said it remains open to trading other hostages for imprisoned guerrillas.

Neither leader referred to that statement, and Uribe did not publicly mention any invitation to Chavez to participate in new negotiations with guerrillas.

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