4 Venezuelan soldiers desert border posts, seek protection, Colombia says


At least four members of Venezuela’s National Guard deserted their posts on Saturday, crossed the border and sought the protection of authorities in this northeastern city, Colombia’s migration agency said.

“Three members of the Venezuelan guard have just deserted ... at the Simon Bolivar International Bridge and have requested assistance from Migracion Colombia,” that agency said in a brief statement.

The agency later added that a Venezuelan sergeant also abandoned his post at the Francisco de Paula Santander Bridge.

That announcement comes on the same day that Colombian President Ivan Duque and Juan Guaido - the speaker of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly and self-proclaimed interim president - are attempting to coordinate the delivery of humanitarian aid to Venezuela, an oil-rich country that is racked by food and medicine shortages and hyperinflation.

Guaido on Friday defied a Supreme Court order barring him from leaving the country and attended a massive fundraising concert organized by British businessman Richard Branson outside Cucuta, where much of the international aid has been stockpiled.

Organizers said that more than 200,000 people attended the concert, whose stated aim was to raise $100 million within 60 days to be used for assistance to Venezuela.

The aid is to be delivered starting at 9 am local time (1400 GMT) Saturday via several border crossings.

But Venezuela’s government rejects the aid, saying it is a Trojan horse for a United States-led military intervention, and announced Friday that it had completely closed the border with Colombia.

Earlier, leftist President Nicolas Maduro announced the shuttering of Venezuela’s border with Brazil and the cutting off of sea and air links with the nearby Dutch islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao, also in a bid to prevent aid shipments.

Political tensions, meanwhile, were ratcheted up further on Friday when a Venezuelan opposition lawmaker said two members of an indigenous community - a man and a woman - were shot and killed in the country’s far south by National Guard soldiers.

The clash occurred while those indigenous people were trying to block the soldiers from impeding the arrival of humanitarian aid from the northwestern Brazilian state of Roraima, Americo De Grazia said.

The top diplomat for Maduro, however, denied Friday that soldiers were involved in deadly clashes.

“What happened this morning has nothing to do with the versions that have circulated. In fact, some of the wounded are wounded by sharp weapons, machetes, even arrows,” Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza told a press conference at the United Nations’ headquarters.

The weapons used “do not correspond” to those carried by Venezuelan soldiers, Arreaza said, denouncing what he called a strategy of blaming Maduro for anything bad that happens in Venezuela.

He warned that the US and its allies will try to blame the Maduro government for anything untoward that may occur on Saturday as supporters of Guaido try to bring US aid into the country over the objections of authorities.

Despite some desertions, Maduro enjoys the near-full backing of the military even though the US, Brazil, Colombia, most of the major European countries - save Italy - and many other nations reject Maduro’s May 2018 re-election victory as a sham and have recognized Guaido as acting head of state.

Several dozen other countries, including Russia, China and India, continue to recognize Maduro as Venezuela’s president.