Maduro cuts ties with Colombia as protests rock Venezuela

Two killed as opposition tries to move aid into Venezuela sparking running battles along border bridges.

    Maduro cuts ties with Colombia as protests rock Venezuela
    Maduro criticized opposition efforts to bring aid to Venezuela calling those supporting the aid convoys 'traitors' [Yuri Cortez/AFP]

    Venezuela's embattled President Nicolas Maduro has severed diplomatic ties with Colombia amid escalating tension over an opposition-led effort to bring foreign aid across the countries' mutual border.

    Maduro on Saturday said Colombian diplomats had been ordered to leave Venezuela, which is in the grip of a major economic crisis, within the next 24 hours.

    His announcement took place against a backdrop of deadly border clashes which saw two people killed in unrest near Brazil and at least 23 soldiers switch loyalties to opposition leader Juan Guaido amid an increasingly unpredictable and unruly fight for power in the oil-rich South American nation.

    Reacting to Maduro's decision, Colombia's Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo said Bogota did not recognise the "legitimacy" of the Venezuelan leader but would withdraw its diplomatic staff from Caracas as soon as possible in order to protect their "life and integrity".

    The diplomatic spat came as protests against Maduro's rule convulsed Venezuelan border towns and the capital, Caracas, with security forces ordered to seal the country's entry and exit points in a bid to prevent food and medical supplies from crossing government blockades.

    Maduro has routinely denied there is a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela - despite the country being racked by widespread shortages of basic supplies and rampant hyperinflation. He alleges the aid packages are part of a US-engineered plan to remove him from power.

    'A long day of fighting'

    Venezuela's National Guard fired tear gas on young protesters on Saturday who were trying to clear a barricaded border bridge to Colombia.

    The clashes occurred after opposition leader Guaido, who most Western nations recognise as the country's legitimate leader, gave a personal send off to an aid caravan from the Colombian border city of Cucuta.

    Guaido briefly boarded one of a dozen trucks carrying the US-backed aid before they set off towards the border, where they were pushed back by Venezuelan security forces.

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    Colombia's migration agency said their contents would be unloaded at the Simon Bolivar bridge, which connects Colombia with neighbouring Venezuela, and transported by "human chains" that had formed on the road.

    But that plan did not work. Two of the trucks were set on fire by Venezuelan security personnel as they crossed into Venezuela, two remaining trucks retreated into Columbia. 

    Al Jazeera's Alessandro Rampietti, reporting from Cucuta on Saturday, said the opposition had "given up on getting the aid through, at least for today" as a result of the Venezuelan security forces' blocking efforts.

    "It's been a long day of fighting over this bridge," Rampietti said, adding that Colombian authorities had confirmed 23 members of Venezuela's armed forces had defected since the beginning of Saturday and 12 people had been wounded by rubber bullets fired by security forces.

    At least two people were killed during a separate effort on Saturday aimed at transporting aid into Venezuela via the country's border with Brazil, the AFP news agency reported, citing the Venezuela-based Foro Penal human rights group.

    Guaido claimed in a tweet the aid had successfully passed into Venezuela, but Al Jazeera was not able to verify this.

    Brazil's Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo, meanwhile, said he expected Maduro's government to allow the aid to pass into Venezuela, the Associated Press news agency reported.

    "It is very exciting to see people anxious to recover their freedom and have a decent life," Araujo said.

    Maduro denounces 'traitors'

    During a speech to a crowd of thousands on Saturday at an outdoor rally in Caracas, Maduro slammed those attempting to bring food and medical supplies into the country as "traitors".

    "[For our] Dignity, we will fight harder than ever," Maduro said.

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    "Days will go by, weeks will go by and Nicolas Maduro the worker's president will continue at the head of the motherland," he added.

    His comments came as rival demonstrations took place in Caracas, with thousands of loyalists marching to the city centre in a show of support for his leadership while a smaller anti-Maduro demonstration converged on a military airbase in a bid to urge soldiers to join their movement.

    US President Donald Trump, meanwhile, said in a tweet on Saturday that the "people of Venezuela stand at the threshold of history, ready to reclaim their country - and their future."

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies