BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — A Colombian official said a four-day incursion into the country by Venezuelan troops may have been linked to Colombia's call for elections in the troubled, neighboring south American nation.
Around 60 Venezuelan soldiers crossed the border into Colombia Monday night and raised their national flag in a camp they set up on a plantain farm.
The troops withdrew Thursday after President Juan Manuel Santos called his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro to protest what he called a "totally unacceptable" violation of Colombia's sovereignty. A video provided by Colombia's Defense Ministry show the Venezuelans lowering their flag hoisted on a giant bamboo stalk and then slowly wading across the parched Arauca River that divides the two countries as dozens of Colombian troops heavily armed with assault rifles look on.
A Colombian official briefed on the call between the two leaders described it as tense. He said that during the conversation Maduro complained about Santos' support for a diplomatic intervention by the Organization of American States to restore Venezuela's democratic order. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the call, said Santos also ordered his top military commanders to arrest the Venezuelans unless they had withdrawn.
Colombia on Thursday joined the U.S., Canada and 11 other western hemispheric nations in a strongly-worded statement calling for Maduro to immediately hold elections, free political prisoners and recognize the legitimacy of the opposition-controlled National Assembly.
It was the strongest statement yet from a growing cadre of nations in Latin America concerned that the political standoff in Venezuela at a time of severe food shortages and triple-digit inflation could erupt into a full-blown crisis.
This week's cross-border raid, which shocked Colombians but drew scant attention in Venezuela, is the latest in an increasing number of border disputes to rattle relations between the two neighbors. It also underscores the risk that Venezuela's deepening political and economic problems could spill across its borders.
Santos in the past has generally refrained from criticizing Venezuela as forcefully as other regional leaders, worried that it could unnecessarily heighten tensions and lead to retaliations against the millions of Colombians living in Venezuela. In 2015, Maduro closed the 1,378-mile (2,219 kilometer) border and expelled thousands of Colombians who he accused of fueling crime and contraband.
Venezuela's Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez rejected attempts to present a "distorted" account of the raid by people seeking to promote a "confrontation between the two brotherly nations." She said the troops were on a routine patrol of the border and attributed their location on the wrong side of the porous, mostly empty border to a seasonal change in the Arauca River's course.
Earlier this month, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro urged regional governments to suspend Venezuela from the group unless general elections are held soon, detailing in a 75-page report the Maduro government's systematic violation of human rights and standards of democracy. The 14 nations in their statement said that while they are "deeply concerned" about the situation in Venezuela, expulsion from the OAS should only be considered as a "last resort" and instead called for dialogue.
Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, said Thursday's declaration "is a clear measure of both the political shift in South America toward more conservative governments and the rapidly deteriorating situation in Venezuela. In the face of such a severe humanitarian crisis it became more and more difficult for many governments to remain silent."
"It is doubtful the government will respond positively, and when that happens it is not clear what the next step will be," he said.