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Colombia, Venezuela extend trade benefits, eye deal


Colombia's president Juan Manuel Santos (R) and his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez shake hands during a news conference in Cartagena April 9, 2011. REUTERS/Jairo Castilla
Colombia's president Juan Manuel Santos (R) and his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez shake hands during a news conference in Cartagena April 9, 2011. REUTERS/Jairo Castilla

BOGOTA (Reuters) - The leaders of U.S. ally Colombia and Washington critic Venezuela extended for three months trade preferences that were set to expire, and said on Saturday they hoped to reach a new agreement by mid-July.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez have been rebuilding relations since last year, after Caracas broke ties with the previous Colombian government in the often volatile Andean region.

Santos said the two countries had extended for three months trade preferences that were set to expire later in April when Venezuela withdraws from the Andean Community, a regional economic and social development organization.

"The spirit of the discussion is so there's no interruption ... (and) to look for a mechanism so trade returns to have the dynamism that it's traditionally had," Santos said after his third meeting with Chavez since taking office last year.

The two nations restored diplomatic ties in 2010 after Santos won a presidential election to replace then Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

Chavez broke ties with Uribe's government over accusations he was harboring left-wing Colombian guerrillas.

Bilateral trade rose to $7 billion three years ago, but it slid after Chavez partially froze commerce in protest at a deal that gave Washington more access to Colombian military bases.

"I'm sure we'll sign a new deal soon; surely at the next meeting within three months we should have a new trade deal ready," Venezuela's socialist leader said.

Chavez and Santos signed a series of agreements on Saturday intended to kick-start commercial ties, boost infrastructure integration, deal with Venezuelan debt to Colombian exporters and fight drug trafficking, among other measures.

The leaders have agreed to meet every three months to further boost relations. Strained ties between the countries have periodically ratcheted up tensions in the Andes.

Commerce, however, is unlikely to reach the same levels as before Caracas partially froze trade as Colombia diversifies its export markets. Santos and Chavez have bickered in the past, and ideological differences between the two countries remain unresolved.

(Reporting by Jack Kimball; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Todd Eastham)

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