CUCUTA, Colombia/URENA, Venezuela (Reuters) – Troops loyal to President Nicolas Maduro turned back foreign aid convoys from Venezuela’s border using teargas and rubber bullets on Saturday, killing two protestors and putting his socialist government on a collision course with Washington.
Trucks laden with U.S. food and medicine for Venezuela returned to warehouses in Colombia after opposition supporters failed to break through lines of troops, who fired rubber rounds to disperse them, injuring dozens of people.
Angered by the Colombian government’s support for opposition leader Juan Guaido, Maduro said he was breaking diplomatic relations with Bogota and gave its diplomatic staff 24 hours to leave the country.
Guaido, who most Western nations recognize as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, had given a personal send-off to Saturday’s convoy carrying aid from the Colombian city of Cucuta.
The opposition had hoped Venezuelan soldiers would baulk at turning back supplies desperately needed in the country, where a growing number of its 30 million people suffer from malnutrition and treatable diseases.
But while some 60 members of the security forces defected on Saturday, according to Colombian authorities, the lines of National Guard soldiers held firm at border crossings.
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. Washington has warned it could seek to impose tough new sanctions on Venezuela at a regional summit on Monday if Maduro blocked the aid shipments.
“What do the Venezuelan people think of Donald Trump’s threats? Get your hands off Venezuela. 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!”
Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton said on Twitter that countries still supporting Maduro “should take note of what they are endorsing”, in a thinly veiled rebuke to China and Russia.
In the Venezuelan border towns of San Antonio and Urena, troops fired tear gas and rubber bullets at opposition supporters, including lawmakers, who walked toward the frontier waving Venezuelan flags and chanting “freedom”.
Witnesses said masked men in civilian clothes also shot at opposition protesters. Reuters television footage from San Antonio showed a dozen men on motorbikes, dressed in black and wearing balaclavas, firing shotguns and pistols at a crowd.
Demonstrators in Urena 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.
TRUCKS IN FLAMES
Two aid trucks caught fire at the Urena border crossing, sending plumes of dark smoke into the air as crowds raced to try to save the boxes of supplies, a Reuters witness said.
At least six of about a dozen trucks that tried to reach Venezuela later returned to Cucuta, where Colombia’s disaster management agency said they would be unloaded and the aid stored until Guaido requested their use again.
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello said he ordered a Puerto Rican ship carrying humanitarian aid to turn back after a Venezuelan navy ship threatened to open fire on the vessel.
“This is unacceptable and shameful,” Rossello said in a statement. “We have also notified our partners in the U.S. government about this serious incident.”
According to a Reuters witness, two aid trucks crossed the Brazilian border but did not pass through the Venezuelan customs checkpoint.
In the southern town of Santa Elena de Uairen 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 was shot dead by security forces.
Rights group Penal Forum said it recorded 29 injuries from bullet wounds and two deaths across Venezuela in clashes with troops on Saturday. Colombian authorities registered 285 people injured, including those affected by tear gas, Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo said.
“I’m a homemaker and I’m here fighting for my family, for my children and parents, resisting the military’s tear gas,” said opposition protester Sobeida Monsalve, 42, in Urena.
Guaido had appealed to Venezuela’s armed forces to stand aside and allow aid in, promising amnesty to all officers who disavowed Maduro. Dozens of soldiers, whose families suffer from the same shortages as other Venezuelans, took up his offer.
A social media video showed troops who abandoned their post driving armored 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.”
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 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, allow the humanitarian aid to enter.”
Reporting by Nelson Bocanegra, Anggy Polanco, Mayela Armas and Steven Grattan; Additional reporting by Helen Murphy and Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota, Anthony Boadle in Brasilia, Ricardo Moraes in Pacaraima, and Angus Berwick in Caracas; Writing by Brian Ellsworth and Angus Berwick; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Grant McCool and Daniel Wallis