Venezuela extends border closure despite Colombia's protests

AP News
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Posted: Aug 28, 2015 8:26 PM
Venezuela extends border closure despite Colombia's protests

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro on Friday broadened a crackdown on Colombian migrants and border smugglers that has drawn strong rebuke by Colombian leaders and international organizations.

Speaking at a rally in Caracas, Maduro expanded the state of emergency and border closure he called last week to more cities on the western edge of the socialist South American country and said he would send an additional 3,000 soldiers to the area.

He said he was open to meeting with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to discuss the mounting tensions between the two neighboring countries wherever and whenever his counterpart chooses, but was leaving the next day for a trip to Asia.

The spat erupted when Maduro shut a major border crossing last week to combat what he says are rampant smuggling and paramilitary activities near Colombia, and declared a state of emergency in six western cities. On Friday, he extended the decree to more municipalities.

Venezuelan officials have deported more than 1,000 Colombian migrants and another 5,000 have left voluntarily, with some carrying all of their belongings across a muddy river on a frantic moving day.

On Friday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called on both sides to work to resolve the crisis, and put extra emphasis on Venezuela's responsibilities.

"We urge the Venezuelan authorities to ensure that the human rights of all affected individuals are fully respected, particularly in the context of any deportations," said Rupert Colville, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebel group also issued a statement from Havana, where it is negotiating a peace deal, saying it supported Venezuela's actions.

A meeting of the two countries' foreign ministers on Wednesday failed to bear fruit, and on Thursday, both countries recalled their ambassadors for consultations, the diplomatic equivalent of lodging a complaint.

Santos called for an emergency meeting of the Union of South American Nations and the Organization of American States, saying, "We want to tell the world what is happening." The organization is expected to meet to discuss the situation next week.

Colombian critics and government opponents inside Venezuela say the crackdown is an attempt by Maduro to distract attention from soaring inflation and supermarket shortages in the oil-rich nation.

The state of emergency allows Venezuelan officials to search homes without a warrant and to break up public gatherings. Some departing Colombians have complained of abuses at the hands of the military in recent days, charges the administration denies.

With two border crossings closed, the underground economy has come to a halt, satisfying Venezuelan officials who have long blamed transnational mafias for widespread shortages. It also has jeopardized the livelihood of tens of thousands of poor Colombians who depend on the black market.

Many businesses are closed in Venezuela because Colombians cannot get to work, while on the Colombian side of the border, residents in Cucuta complain of long gas station lines as the security offensive cuts off trade, legal and otherwise, between the two nations.

On Friday, Santos said officials had ordered a hike in the price of gas in the city, and barred gas stations from closing to ensure that the lines die down.

In Caracas, thousands of government supporters snarled traffic as they marched to the presidential palace in support of the new measures, which they said were not aimed at Colombian migrants themselves. Maduro danced onstage to live music and told cheering supporters that he had waited long enough for Colombia to rein in the violence and crime seeping over the border.

"What do you want me to do? How long will Colombia ignore the problems that are theirs and only theirs?" he said.

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AP writers Cesar Garcia and Libardo Cardona in Bogota, Colombia contributed to this report.

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