Venezuela’s president has escalated his country’s dispute with Colombia by expanding the partial closure of their shared border to four new frontier towns.
Acting again a day after the two countries recalled their ambassadors, Nicolas Maduro extended on Friday the border closure, which originally applied to a heavily trafficked stretch of border comprising six towns.
Venezuela and Colombia have been locked in a diplomatic row since Maduro closed part of the border last week after unidentified assailants attacked a Venezuelan anti-smuggling patrol, wounding three soldiers and a civilian.
He blamed the attack on right-wing paramilitaries from Colombia.
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.
“To clean up paramilitary activity, crime, smuggling, kidnapping and drug trafficking, I have decided to close the border for zone number two in the state of Tachira,” Maduro said in a speech in Caracas on Friday.
He said he was sending 3,000 troops to “search high and low for paramilitaries, even under rocks”.
He said he was open to meeting Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to discuss the mounting tensions wherever and whenever his counterpart chooses, but was leaving the next day for a trip to Asia.
‘Attack on economy’
Maduro accused Colombia of waging “an attack on Venezuela’s economy” – a reference to the rampant smuggling of heavily subsidised food and other goods out of Venezuela, where more than five million Colombians live.
In Caracas, thousands of government supporters created traffic jams on Friday 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 on stage 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.
However, the UN 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.
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 has called for an emergency meeting of the Union of South American Nations and the Organisation of American States (OAS), saying: “We want to tell the world what is happening.”
The OAS is expected to meet to discuss the situation next week.
The porous, 2,200km border has long been rife with fighters from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN), as well as drug gangs and smugglers.
The Colombian gangs include the remnants of right-wing paramilitary groups that once battled FARC and ELN fighters but were disbanded a decade ago.
FARC issued a statement from Havana, Cuba, where it is negotiating a peace deal, saying it supported Venezuela’s actions.
Maduro blames Colombian smuggling for severe shortages of basic goods in Venezuela, a problem that led to violent protests in the country last year.
Venezuela has long used its oil wealth to fund price controls that keep goods like rice and toilet paper up to 10 times cheaper than in Colombia.