Venezuela's border aid blockade turns deadly
Deadly clashes broke out in Venezuela's border towns on Saturday as trucks loaded with humanitarian aid tried to cross over from Brazil and Colombia. The EU decried "irregular armed groups" allegedly used by acting President Nicolas Maduro to intimidate activists trying to distribute aid.
- Two people were reported killed in a confrontation with security forces at the Brazil-Venezuela border.
- Venezuelan soldiers fired tear gas at opposition supporters trying to unload aid trucks at the frontier with Colombia, wounding hundreds of people.
- At least two trucks carrying food and medicine from Colombia went up in flames after they came under fire from troops.
- More than 60 members of Venezuela's security forces have defected and crossed over to Colombia.
- Acting President Nicolas Maduro has severed diplomatic relations with Colombia over Bogota's backing of his rival Juan Guaido.
Read more: Venezuela's Juan Guaido urges army to let aid through
Some 14 trucks carrying 280 tons of emergency supplies headed to different border bridges separating Colombia from Venezuela's Tachira region on Saturday to fulfill Guaido's promise to bring aid into the crisis-ravaged country.
Opposition supporters attempting to unload trucks and remove barriers on the Simon Bolivar and Francisco de Paula Santander bridges came under tear gas attack, as security forces carried out orders to uphold acting President Nicolas Maduro's border blockade.
Colombian authorities said around 285 people were injured in clashes, while at least two trucks were set on fire.
Read more: Opinion: Help, the helpers are coming!
Hundreds of kilometers away, near Venezuela's border with Brazil, two people, including a 14-year-old boy, were killed and 18 injured during clashes with security forces in the southeastern town of Santa Elena de Uairen. As dusk fell, thousands of people gathered at the border crossing to demand supplies be let through.
"Our call to the armed forces couldn't be clearer: put yourself on the right side of history," Guaido said in an appeal to troops at the Colombia-Venezuela frontier. He is set to meet with US Vice President Mike Pence in Bogota on Monday on the sidelines of a gathering of the Lima Group of nations. Guaido tweeted that he would ask the international community to keep "all options open" in order to "liberate" Venezuela.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Twitter that he condemned the "attacks on civilians in #Venezuela perpetrated by Maduro's thugs."
"The US will take action against those who oppose the peaceful restoration of democracy in #Venezuela. Now is the time to act in support of the needs of the desperate Venezuelan people," he wrote.
Aid sent back
The violence at the border bridges prompted Colombia to order the aid trucks to turn back. Colombian migration authorities also said they would close down the area's four border crossings until Monday night to assess the damage from the unrest.
Two other trucks carrying emergency supplies from Brazil returned to the Brazilian city of Paracaima late Saturday after Venezuelan troops halted them at the crossing for several hours, Agence France-Presse reported.
Read more: Rival concerts on Colombia-Venezuela border herald aid convoy attempt
Also on Saturday, more than 60 members of Venezuela's security forces — National Guard troops and police officers — deserted their posts during the clashes and crossed the border into Colombia, according to Colombian officials.
Army Major Hugo Parra Martinez, meanwhile, became the fifth high-ranking member of the armed forces to abandon Maduro's socialist government. Footage appeared on social media showing him speaking through a megaphone, saying that he's ready to join the struggle for Venezuela's freedom and accept Guaido's offer of amnesty.
Maduro secures border
Maduro ordered the closure of three border bridges to Colombia late on Friday amid a dispute with Guaido about letting in aid. He had already ordered the closure of the border to Brazil and an end to air and sea travel to the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao earlier this week.
A Venezuela-bound boat carrying aid from Puerto Rico had to turn back after receiving "direct threat of fire" from the country's army, according to the US territory's governor, Ricardo Rossello. Meanwhile, another shipment of supplies was being held at Curacao's port because of Maduro's ban.
EU ready to boost aid
On Sunday, the EU called on armed forces to "show restraint" and allow the delivery of aid.
The EU's Foreign Policy chief Federica Mogherini also said the EU had earmarked over €60 million ($68 million) of aid to Venezuela in 2018 and 2019.
"We recall our commitment to help those in need for as long as it takes, to scale up this assistance," Mogherini said.
Despite five years of deep economic crisis, Maduro denies there are significant food and medicine shortages in Venezuela and has accused the United States of using its aid donations, which account for most of the supplies on the Colombian side of the border, as a cover for military intervention.
Read more: Venezuela's health care crisis: Hospitals have 'nothing left'
Head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, Guaido declared himself president in January. Fifty countries, including Germany, have backed the 35-year-old politician. Russia, China and Turkey have voiced support for Maduro.
nm/sms (AFP, AP, dpa)
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