Venezuela’s Maduro breaks relations with Colombia in standoff over aid

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. (Photo By JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images)

VENEZUELA. — Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro broke diplomatic relations Saturday with Colombia as tensions escalated along the two countries’ borders over aid into Venezuela.

The Venezuelan National Guard fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters Saturday near the Colombian border, while the opposition began to usher aid into the troubled country in defiance of Maduro.

Soldiers faced off against protesters who were demanding to cross the border at Ureña to go work in Colombia, according to a CNN crew that witnessed the scene at the Tienditas Bridge.

The protesters chanted, “We want to work!” as National Guard fired tear gas to disperse them. Men with shirts covering their faces started throwing rocks toward the guard members.

Also Saturday, humanitarian aid moved through the Brazilian-Venezuelan border in Pacaraima, according to Maria Teresa Belandria, Venezuela’s opposition-appointed ambassador to Brazil.

Maduro denies that a humanitarian crisis exists in Venezuela and suggests that aid efforts are part of a US plot to orchestrate a coup.

On Saturday, Maduro called on Venezuelans to “mobilize.” “Let’s all take to the streets to defend our independence with conscience and joy,” the embattled Venezuelan President said on his official Twitter account.

At a large rally in Caracas, he dared the opposition to call for elections and called Guaido a “clown” and a “US puppet.”

Maudro told supporters he is breaking all diplomatic relations with Colombia and is calling for ambassadors and consuls to leave Venezuela.

He gave the Colombian ambassadors and consuls 24 hours to get out of the country.

“My patience has run out. I can’t continue to tolerate the aggressions against Venezuela that are being carried out by the Colombian government,” Maduro said.

He also threatened the United States: “If the empire dares to attack, they will be received by the strength of the Venezuelan armed forces.”

Meanwhile, opposition leader Juan Guaido, who declared himself acting president last month, said that some are looking to block access to aid by generating violence.

“We have peaceful intentions regarding this humanitarian and multilateral effort,” Guaido said, speaking Saturday in front of aid trucks on the Colombia-Venezuela border. He described it as a “peaceful effort that wants to save lives.”

Guaido tweeted later Saturday that aid had reached Venezuelan territory, including an image of trucks blocked by the military.

“Attention Venezuela!” he said on Twitter. “We announced that the trucks of humanitarian aid from Colombia are already in Venezuela territory. The usurper regime is blocking them. They will not be able with our irreversible decision to live in freedom.”

Defections on the border

Ten members of Venezuela’s National Guard and two female police officers “fled the dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro” on Saturday, according to Colombian immigration authorities.

A Venezuelan man also “turned himself in,” Colombian immigration authorities said.

The troops abandoned their posts at the Simon Bolivar International Bridge on the Colombia-Venezuela border and requested help from Colombia’s immigration department.

Guaido said he “welcomes those soldiers that are on the constitution’s side.” He called for Venezuelan forces to join the “right side of history.”

The opposition leader later tweeted a video he said shows Venezuelan soldiers saluting him as their commander in chief. “There will be amnesty and guarantees for those who take the side of the people,” he said on Twitter.

2 dead near Brazil border

A standoff over aid delivery led to violence Friday at a Venezuelan town near the border with Brazil, killing two people and injuring 17 others, local authorities said.

The violence occurred between a local indigenous community and the military near Gran Sabana, said the town’s mayor, Emilio Gonzalez. He told CNN the military opened fire on an indigenous group trying to facilitate the passage of aid into Venezuela.

Gonzalez said soldiers shot and killed a 34-year-old indigenous Venezuelan woman and injured 17 others.

National Assembly member Americo De Grazia said on his official Twitter feed that two people had died. The second victim was an indigenous man, according to De Grazia.

Venezuela’s Ministry of Defense told CNN it had no information on the incident.

After the military opened fire, an indigenous group in Gran Sabana detained 40 National Guard soldiers, Gonzalez said.

Shots were fired overnight in the center of the town, where residents put up barricades while members of the National Guard drove in armored vehicles, Gonzalez said. The skirmishes brought the town to a total shutdown, he said.

Earlier this week, Guaido named Saturday as the deadline for the aid to cross the border.

Guaido has been working with a raft of global partners to bring Venezuelans desperately needed food and medical supplies. The White House urged the Venezuelan military to allow aid into the country in a statement Friday.

“The United States strongly condemns the Venezuelan military’s use of force against unarmed civilians and innocent volunteers on Venezuela’s border with Brazil,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said.

“Egregious violation of human rights by Maduro and those who are following his orders will not go unpunished. The United States strongly urges the Venezuelan military to uphold its constitutional duty to protect the citizens of Venezuela. The Venezuelan military must allow humanitarian aid to peacefully enter the country. The world is watching.”

The United States announced Friday that it was preparing to bring in aid through another route.

“The US and its partners began pre-positioning additional humanitarian aid for Venezuelans in Boa Vista, Brazil,” the US State Department tweeted.

The aid consists of food kits “containing rice, beans, sugar, and salt to feed nearly 3,500 people for 10 days and additional rice to feed an estimated 6,100 people for one month,” a fact sheet from the State Department says.

Aid stacked on Colombian border

The United States has so far delivered batches of relief supplies to a border town in Colombia, including food and hygiene kits, ready-to-use supplementary foods and high-energy biscuits. It’s pledged $20 million to help Venezuela, and other countries including Canada, the UK and Germany have chipped in, too.

Colombian President Ivan Duque said Saturday that aid piled up in his country should be allowed into Venezuela.

“We demand that its entry is allowed in a peaceful manner to the Venezuelan territory for the benefit of those who need it,” said Duque, standing alongside Guaido at a press conference in Cucuta, Colombia, near the Venezuelan border.

“Preventing its entry is an attack against the human rights and could constitute a crime against humanity.”

Duque added that the international aid has been handed over to Guaido.

“Denying entry has represented so far a systematic violation to the minimal conditions of life of the Venezuelan people. Today, we are doing a multilateral exercise of peaceful and humanitarian nature; about the results of this process, the usurper Nicolas Maduro will be responsible of any violence acts,” he said.

“We ask the armed forces of Venezuela to be on the right side of history and receive your brothers and sisters that are taking humanitarian aid to assist the people of Venezuela.”

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