CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has ordered the closure of a major border crossing with Colombia after three soldiers were attacked while looking for smugglers.
Maduro late Wednesday said the normally busy border in western Tachira state would remain closed for 72 hours. He also vowed to mount a special mission to boost protection for Venezuelans living along the 1,400 mile (2,200-kilometer) border, an area long plagued by violence stemming from Colombia's long-running conflict and the presence of drug-trafficking gangs.
Maduro's announcement, during a phone call to a much-watched program on state TV hosted by National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, came hours after the attack of three army officers while they were carrying out patrols in the border town of San Antonio.
Maduro said that the assailants, who haven't been identified, shot the officers — two lieutenants and a captain — from behind before fleeing on motorcycles.
"They were ambushed by two motorcyclists that we're now looking for, even underneath the rocks," said Maduro.
Maduro regularly blames smugglers and paramilitaries allegedly linked to former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe for violence that has spilled over the border in recent years.
As part of a government crackdown against the flow of contraband, the government this year has closed the border in Tachira at night, deployed more troops and toughened jail sentences for anyone caught smuggling. It's also rolled out a fingerprint-scanning system to restrict the amount of any single product shoppers can buy.
In total, the government says more than 6,000 people have been arrested for smuggling in the past year and it says more than 28,000 tons of food were seized last year in anti-smuggling operations.
Opponents say the restrictions are futile and blame price and currency controls for much of the criminality as goods purchased at ultra-low prices in Venezuela are resold for huge profits in Colombia.