Two killed in clashes on Venezuelan border over aid shutdown

Maduro breaks relations with Colombia after he claims it helped humanitarian effort

Troops loyal to President Nicolas Maduro have violently driven back foreign aid convoys from Venezuela's border, killing at least two protesters. Video: Reuters

 

At least two people were killed and trucks loaded with foreign aid were set ablaze after Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro deployed troops and armored vehicles to turn back humanitarian assistance at border crossings with Colombia and Brazil.

Trucks laden with US food and medicine returned to warehouses in Columbia after opposition supporters failed to break through lines of troops, who dispersed them with tear gas and rubber rounds, injuring dozens.

Mr Maduro said he was breaking diplomatic relations with Colombia and ordered its diplomatic staff to leave Venezuela within 24 hours because of its government’s assistance to opposition leader Juan Guaido.

Mr Guaidó declared himself interim president last month in the boldest opposition move to topple the populist Chavista regime from power since a disastrous coup attempt in 2002. He has since been recognised by 50 countries and has received strong backing from the Trump administration in the US.

Mr Guaidó gave a personal send-off on Saturday to a convoy carrying US aid departing from the Colombian city of Cúcuta. The opposition says the foreign humanitarian assistance is desperately needed to tackle widespread food and medicine shortages in Venezuela.

But Mr Maduro denies his oil-rich nation has any need of aid and accuses Mr Guaidó of being a coup-mongering puppet for US president Donald Trump.

Washington warned on Friday that it could impose tough new sanctions on Venezuela if Mr Maduro blocked the aid shipments.

“What do the Venezuelan people think of Donald Trump’s threats? Get your hands off Venezuela Donald Trump. Yankee go home,” Mr Maduro told a rally of red-shirted, flag-waving supporters in the capital, Caracas. “He is sending us rotten food, thank you.”

In the Venezuelan border towns of San Antonio and Urena, troops fired tear gas and rubber bullets at opposition supporters, including politicians, walking towards the frontier waving Venezuelan flags and chanting “freedom”.

A demonstrator throws rocks during clashes with the Bolivarian National Guard in Urena, Venezuela, near the border with Colombia. Photograph: Rodrigo And/AP
A demonstrator throws rocks during clashes with the Bolivarian National Guard in Urena, Venezuela, near the border with Colombia. Photograph: Rodrigo And/AP

People in Urena barricaded streets with burning tyres, set a bus alight and hurled stones at troops to demand that Mr Maduro allow aid into a country ravaged by an economic meltdown that has halved the size of the economy in five years.

“They started shooting at close range as if we were criminals,” said shopkeeper Vladimir Gomez (27) wearing a white shirt stained with blood. “I couldn’t avoid the [rubber] bullets and they hit me in the face and my back. We have to fight.”

Colombia’s government had said that aid trucks would be unloaded at the border and their cargo transported by “human chains” that formed on the road that leads toward Venezuela.

However, Venezuelan security forces halted the convoys with a barrage of teargas. At the crossing by Urena, two trucks caught fire, sending plumes of dark smoke into the air, while crowds started removing boxes of supplies, a witness said.

In the southern town of Santa Elena de Uairen, near the border with Brazil, at least two people were killed in clashes with security forces, according to a doctor at the hospital where they were treated. On Friday, a married couple in a nearby indigenous community were shot dead by security forces.

Rights group Penal Forum said it had recorded 29 injuries and two deaths across Venezuela in clashes with troops, though Reuters could not verify this.

Mr Guaido had appealed to Venezuela’s armed forces to stand aside and allow aid in, promising amnesty to all officers who disavowed Mr Maduro. Several soldiers, whose families suffer from the same shortages as other Venezuelans, took up his offer.

Twenty-three members of the security forces defected on Saturday, including 18 members of the National Guard and two police officers, Colombia’s migration authority said.

A social media video showed troops who abandoned their post driving armoured vehicles across a bridge linking Venezuela and Colombia, knocking over metal barricades, and then jumping out of the vehicles and running to the Colombian side.

“What we did today, we did for our families, for the Venezuelan people,” said one of the defectors in a video televised by a Colombian news programme, which did not identify them. “We are not terrorists.”

Venezuela’s ruling Socialist Party calls Mr Guaido’s aid effort a veiled invasion backed by Washington and insists that the US should instead help Venezuela by lifting crippling financial and oil sector sanctions.

Mr Maduro blames Venezuela’s dire situation on US sanctions that have blocked funds and hobbled the country’s vital oil industry.

People gather at the border between Venezuela and Brazil in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil. Photograph: Ricardo Moraes/Reuters
People gather at the border between Venezuela and Brazil in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil. Photograph: Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

On Saturday, Mr Maduro turned his ire on Colombia and said president Ivan Duque’s government was allowing its territory to be used for “attacks against Venezuela”.

“For that reason, I have decided to break all political and diplomatic relations with Colombia’s fascist government,” he told cheering supporters.

Nearby, thousands of white-clad protesters gathered outside a military base in Caracas to demand that the armed forces allow the aid in.

“This is the biggest battle that the armed forces can win,” said Sheyla Salas (48) who works in advertising. “Please join this struggle, get on the right side of history, allow the humanitarian aid to enter.”

According to a Reuters witness, two humanitarian aid trucks crossed the Brazilian border although they had not passed through the Venezuelan customs checkpoint.

Mr Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton cancelled plans to travel to South Korea to prepare for a summit addressing North Korea’s nuclear program in order to focus instead on events unfolding in Venezuela, his spokesman said on Friday. – Reuters