‘Humanitarian time bomb’: 4,700 Venezuelans flee to Colombia

Some accuse Venezuelan army of using excessive force in operation against armed groups near Colombia-Venezuela border.

Venezuelans arrive in canoes on the Colombian side of the Arauca river after fleeing military operations, in Arauquita, Colombia, on March 27 [Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters]

About 4,700 Venezuelans have been displaced to neighbouring Colombia during the past week, according to Colombian government figures, after the Venezuelan military launched an operation against armed groups near the border.

Al Jazeera’s Alessandro Rampietti, reporting from a shelter in Arauquita, Colombia, said clashes continued on Sunday on the Venezuelan side of the border.

“Many here are very angry at the Venezuelan government for what they consider the use of excessive force on the part of the Venezuelan armed forces,” Rampietti said.

The Venezuelan military launched an operation last weekend against fighters belonging to what it described as “irregular Colombian armed groups“.

The operation began in La Victoria, a Venezuelan town across the Arauca River from Arauquita, in Apure state in the country’s southwest.

Venezuelan migrants are seen inside a temporary camp that has been set up in Arauquita, Colombia [Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters]

The Venezuelan defence ministry said on Saturday that six fighters from those Colombian armed groups had been killed in the fighting, while 39 others had been taken into custody. Two Venezuelan soldiers have also died in the operation.

The ministry said “weapons, grenades, ammunition, explosives, uniforms, vehicles, drugs and technological equipment containing information on their activities” had also been seized since Sunday.

Many Venezuelans took boats across the river to escape the fighting, and some have since accused the military of human rights abuses, including the ransacking of homes and even extrajudicial killings.

“They raided our house and took everything from us,” Jose Castillo, who arrived in Colombia with his pregnant wife and 12-year-old daughter on Friday, told the Reuters news agency.

“When they arrived they broke everything, the doors; they entered and took everything I had in the house, the workshop.”

Al Jazeera has not been able to independently verify those claims.

The Venezuelan government has promised to investigate all abuse allegations.

Venezuelans are seen on the banks of the Arauca river after fleeing their country due to military operations [Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters]

“This is really a humanitarian time bomb for a place like Arauquita,” said Rampietti, who added that 18 shelters have been set up in the Colombian town so far.

He said the Colombian government also created a command post with the United Nations refugee agency and other humanitarian aid groups to provide food and other assistance to the displaced people, many of whom left their homes with just the clothes on their backs.

Colombia’s interior minister said the country is planning for 18 shelters to remain in place for at least two weeks, Rampietti reported, “because they don’t know how long the military campaign will continue inside Venezuela.”

The Venezuelan government has said the situation is under control and people can go home, but many at the shelter said they do not trust those assurances, he added.

“At least for now, people are saying we cannot go back.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies