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Venezuela forces and protesters clash as border tensions rise over aid

REUTERS/Marco Bello | At Francisco de Paula Santander bridge on the border between Colombia and Venezuela, on February 23, 2019, Opposition supporters unload humanitarian aid from a truck that was set on fire.

A high-risk operation to get humanitarian aid into Venezuela descended into deadly chaos Saturday after President Nicolas Maduro's security forces fired on demonstrators and aid trucks were set ablaze.

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Two people, including a 14-year-old boy, were killed in clashes with security forces that left more than 300 people wounded at various border crossings.

Witnesses said masked men in civilian clothes also shot at protesters with live bullets.

President Nicolas 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 Guaido.

Guaido said on Saturday that President Nicolas Maduro's use of troops to violently block the entry of humanitarian aid meant he would propose to the international community that all options remain open to oust Maduro.

"Today's events force me to make a decision: To formally propose to the International Community that we must have all options open to secure the freedom of our country, which fights and will keep fighting," Guaido said on Twitter.

Guaido, who most Western nations recognise as Venezuela's legitimate leader, gave a personal send-off on Saturday 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 Guaido of being a coup-mongering puppet for U.S. President Donald Trump.

"US will take action"

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Saturday the United States "will take action" as he condemned violence perpetrated by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's "thugs" after security forces fired on demonstrators.

"The U.S. will take action against those who oppose the peaceful restoration of democracy in #Venezuela. Now is the time to act in support of the needs of the desperate Venezuelan people," Pompeo wrote on Twitter.

"We stand in solidarity with those continuing their struggle for freedom. #EstamosUnidosVE."

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence plans to meet with Guaido in Bogota on Monday on the sidelines of a meeting of the Lima Group of regional leaders, a Pence aide said on Saturday.

Washington warned on Friday that it could impose tough new sanctions on Venezuela if Maduro blocked the aid shipments.

Maduro's reaction

"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 red-shirted, flag-waving supporters in the capital, Caracas. "He is sending us rotten food, thank you!"

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

Colombian emergency services announced at least 42 people were wounded in clashes during clashes at the Simon Bolivar Bridge, the main bridge separating Venezuela from Colombia.

People in Ureña barricaded streets with burning tires, set a bus alight and hurled stones at troops to demand that Maduro allow aid into a country ravaged by an economic meltdown that has halved the size of the economy in five years.

"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."

Venezuelan forces have fired tear gas at people on the Francisco de Paula Santander bridge linking Ureña and Cucuta, according to a Telegraph reporter.

Aid to be transported by 'human chains'

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 Ureña, two trucks caught fire, sending plumes of dark smoke into the air, while crowds started removing boxes of supplies, a Reuters witness said.

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

Rights group Penal Forum said it had recorded 29 injuries and two deaths across Venezuela in clashes with troops, though Reuters could not verify this.

"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 Ureña.

FRANCE 24's Paula Carrillo: 'Today is the key date for the Venezuelan opposition concerning the aid'

At least 23 members of the security forces defected

Guaido 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 Saturday, 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 armoured 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."

FRANCE 24's Anna Herrero 'We are expecting the army to block the aid as the opposition hopes to get it in Venezuela’

Venezuela's ruling Socialist Party calls Guaido'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.

On Saturday, 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, and allow the humanitarian aid to enter."

Two aid trucks headed back to Brazil

Earlier, two humanitarian aid trucks had crossed the Brazilian border without passing through the Venezuelans customs checkpoint. But according to The Guardian's Emily Costa, both trucks have left the border and headed back into Brazilian city of Pacaraima. Venezuelan volunteers justified the move for "safety reasons".

Trump's national security adviser John Bolton cancelled plans to travel to South Korea to prepare for a summit addressing North Korea's nuclear program in order to focus instead on events unfolding in Venezuela, his spokesman said on Friday.

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

Benefit concert gathered 200,000 attendees

Nearly 200,000 people attended a benefit concert in Cucuta on Friday featuring Latin pop stars, including Luis Fonsi of "Despacito" fame, many of whom called on Maduro to step down.

A rival concert held by the ruling Socialist Party on the Venezuelan side was sparsely attended.

Guaido in January invoked articles of the constitution to assume interim presidency and denounced Maduro as a usurper, arguing his 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

(FRANCE 24 with Reuters, AFP)

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