2 Killed as Maduro Sends Troops to Block Aid Convoys at Columbia Border

By Reuters
February 23, 2019 Updated: February 24, 2019

CUCUTA, Colombia/URENA, Venezuela—At least two people were killed and trucks loaded with foreign aid were set ablaze after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro deployed troops and armored vehicles to turn back humanitarian assistance at border crossings with Colombia and Brazil.

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 Guaidó.

Guaidó, who most Western nations recognize as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, gave a personal send-off on Saturday, Feb. 23, to a convoy carrying U.S. aid departing from the Colombian city of Cucuta. The opposition says the foreign humanitarian assistance is desperately needed to tackle widespread food and medicine shortages in Venezuela.

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

empty shelves of a supermarket in Caracas
A woman walks between the empty shelves of a supermarket in Caracas on Jan. 11, 2018. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, on Thursday called his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro to accept international aid to help Venezuelan people to stop “suffering hunger and lack of medicines.” (JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images)

Washington warned on Friday, Feb. 22, that it could impose tough new sanctions on Venezuela if 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,” Maduro told a rally of blood red-shirted, flag-waving supporters in the capital, Caracas.

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

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 Reuters witness said.

humanitarian aid from a truck set on fire before reaching Venezuela
Opposition supporters unload humanitarian aid from a truck that was set on fire after clashes between opposition supporters and Venezuela’s security forces at the Francisco de Paula Santander bridge on the border line between Colombia and Venezuela as seen from Cucuta, Colombia, Feb. 23, 2019. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

“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.”

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 Feb. 22, a married couple in a nearby indigenous community were shot dead by security forces.

“I’m a homemaker and I’m here fighting for my family, for my children and parents, resisting the military’s tear gas and soldiers on motorbikes,” said Sobeida Monsalve, 42, in Urena.

‘The Biggest Battle’

Guaidó had appealed to Venezuela’s armed forces to stand to one side and allow aid in, promising amnesty to all officers who disavowed 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 Feb. 23, 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 armored 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 program, which did not identify them. “We are not terrorists.”

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

Maduro blames Venezuela’s dire situation on U.S. sanctions that have blocked funds and hobbled the OPEC member’s vital oil industry.

But Robert Wasinger, a former White House liaison to the State Department, told The Epoch Times that the Venezuelan state-owned oil and gas company PDVSA is being used by Maduro as “his own personal piggy bank.” Wasinger said with the recent action by the U.S. Treasury Department, “that’s all going to be put to an end.”

On Feb. 23, 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.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, in a message on Twitter on Feb. 23, said: “To Juan Guaidó and all the people of Venezuela taking a stand for freedom and humanitarian relief: Estamos con ustedes. We are with you.”

By Steven Grattan, Anggy Polanco and Mayela Armas. Additional reporting by The Epoch Times.