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By Hugh Bronstein
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia captured four members of the Venezuelan National Guard on Colombian soil and said on Saturday it would send them home in a gesture aimed at lowering diplomatic tensions between the neighbouring countries.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez last week ordered his army to prepare for war, warning that a new U.S.-Colombia military cooperation agreement could set the stage for an invasion of Venezuela. Bogota and Washington dismiss the claim, saying their pact is limited to fighting drug-runners and rebels in Colombia.
"They should carry back the message that here there is brotherly affection for Venezuela and that affection is unbreakable," said Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, referring to the Venezuelans captured on Friday.
The four were stopped by the Colombian Navy while travelling by boat on a river in the border province of Vichada.
The long-simmering spat between conservative Uribe and leftist Chavez has reduced bi-lateral trade, which amounted to more than $7 billion last year, and increased tension along a border already beset by the smuggling of drugs and other contraband. But analysts are not predicting war.
The Colombian government issued a statement calling for the release of an officer of its DAS intelligence service being held in Venezuela. Chavez has also accused Colombia of spying.
"By sending the four Venezuelans back, Uribe is trying to mark a contrast between himself and Chavez, who looks belligerent by comparison," said Mauricio Romero, political science professor at Bogota's Javeriana University.
"This is meant for consumption in Colombia, in the international community and it could help the Venezuelan opposition as well," Romero said.
"Uribe is playing to three audiences."
Washington sees Uribe as a buffer against Chavez and Rafael Correa, the socialist President of Ecuador.
On Friday, Ecuador and Colombia exchanged charges d'affaires in a step towards normalizing diplomatic ties cut by Correa after Colombia bombed a rebel camp set up on Ecuador's side of the border in 2008.
In another good-will gesture, Uribe said on Saturday Colombia would keep sending electric energy to Ecuador despite shortages in Colombia caused by lighter-than usual rains.
(Editing by Todd Eastham)

Reuters