Telegraph | Venezuelan soldiers defect as troops fire tear gas at protesters on Colombia border

Rozina Sabur, Washington Harriet Alexander, Cucuta, Colombia

Soldiers from Venezuela’s national guard have deserted their posts ahead of an opposition-led effort to bring aid into the economically-devastated county.

Three abandoned their posts on the Simon Bolivar International Bridge to oversee the humanitarian aid delivery, while a fourth did so at the Paula Santander International Bridge in Ureña, in the south west of the country.

The soldiers have asked for help from neighbouring Colombia’s migration agency, the department said.

Separately, Venezuelan troops have fired tear gas at people attempting to cross into Colombia to work.

President Nicolas Maduro has ordered the Venezuelan military to close the border with Colombia to bar humanitarian aid, which is being supported by the opposition, from entering the country.

Venezuelan forces on Saturday hurled tear gas and fired rubber to break up a crowd demanding to cross the Urena border bridge to Colombia.

“We want to work!” people chanted as they faced Venezuelan National Guard riot police blocking the crossing, one of several ordered closed by Mr Maduro late on Friday.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido, who has declared himself interim president, is attempting to cross into Venezuela from the Colombian border on Saturday with thousands of volunteers carrying emergency supplies.

While the need for basic food and medicines is real, the effort is also meant to embarrass military officers who continue to support Mr Maduro’s increasingly isolated government.

How we got here

Mr Guaido, recognised by most Western nations as the country’s legitimate head of state, defied court orders not to leave Venezuela by arriving on Friday in the Colombian border city of Cucuta, where aid from the US and Colombian governments is stockpiled in warehouses.

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

President Maduro blames the country’s dire situation on US sanctions that have blocked the country from obtaining financing and have hobbled the OPEC nation’s oil industry.

Violence has already flared in some border regions. Two people were killed on Friday night when the Venezuelan army opened fire in an village near the Brazilian border after indigenous leaders attempted to prevent them from advancing, killing a woman and her husband.

What happens next?

Venezuela’s military has served as the traditional arbiter of political disputes in the South American country and in recent weeks top leaders have pledged their unwavering loyalty to Mr Maduro.

However, many believe that lower-ranking troops who suffer from the same hardships as many other Venezuelans may be more inclined to now let the aid enter.

Mr Maduro, who has support from China, Russia and the military high command, accuses the United States of plotting a military intervention.

Moscow has blasted Washington for using aid as a “convenient pretext for conducting military action.”

However, Mr Guaido’s supporters have been buoyed by news of aid convoys getting through in Brazil, and by multiple defections by Mr Maduro’s forces.

Rozina Sabur, Washington Harriet Alexander, Cucuta, Colombia

23 February 2019 • 6:31pm

Soldiers from Venezuela’s national guard have deserted their posts ahead of an opposition-led effort to bring aid into the economically-devastated county.

Three abandoned their posts on the Simon Bolivar International Bridge to oversee the humanitarian aid delivery, while a fourth did so at the Paula Santander International Bridge in Ureña, in the south west of the country.

The soldiers have asked for help from neighbouring Colombia’s migration agency, the department said.

Separately, Venezuelan troops have fired tear gas at people attempting to cross into Colombia to work.

President Nicolas Maduro has ordered the Venezuelan military to close the border with Colombia to bar humanitarian aid, which is being supported by the opposition, from entering the country.

Venezuelan forces on Saturday hurled tear gas and fired rubber to break up a crowd demanding to cross the Urena border bridge to Colombia.
Self-declared acting president Juan Guaido has vowed humanitarian aid would enter Venezuela despite a blockade
Self-declared acting president Juan Guaido has vowed humanitarian aid would enter Venezuela despite a blockade Credit: AFP

“We want to work!” people chanted as they faced Venezuelan National Guard riot police blocking the crossing, one of several ordered closed by Mr Maduro late on Friday.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido, who has declared himself interim president, is attempting to cross into Venezuela from the Colombian border on Saturday with thousands of volunteers carrying emergency supplies.

While the need for basic food and medicines is real, the effort is also meant to embarrass military officers who continue to support Mr Maduro’s increasingly isolated government.
How we got here

Mr Guaido, recognised by most Western nations as the country’s legitimate head of state, defied court orders not to leave Venezuela by arriving on Friday in the Colombian border city of Cucuta, where aid from the US and Colombian governments is stockpiled in warehouses.

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

President Maduro blames the country’s dire situation on US sanctions that have blocked the country from obtaining financing and have hobbled the OPEC nation’s oil industry.

Violence has already flared in some border regions. Two people were killed on Friday night when the Venezuelan army opened fire in an village near the Brazilian border after indigenous leaders attempted to prevent them from advancing, killing a woman and her husband.
What happens next?

Venezuela’s military has served as the traditional arbiter of political disputes in the South American country and in recent weeks top leaders have pledged their unwavering loyalty to Mr Maduro.

However, many believe that lower-ranking troops who suffer from the same hardships as many other Venezuelans may be more inclined to now let the aid enter.

Mr Maduro, who has support from China, Russia and the military high command, accuses the United States of plotting a military intervention.

Moscow has blasted Washington for using aid as a “convenient pretext for conducting military action.”

However, Mr Guaido’s supporters have been buoyed by news of aid convoys getting through in Brazil, and by multiple defections by Mr Maduro’s forces.

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5:20PM
Aid for Venezuela to be passed by human chain from Colombia

A convoy of trucks carrying humanitarian assistance for Venezuela will be unloaded at the Simon Bolivar bridge on Colombia’s side of the border and the aid will be transported by a human chain across the frontier, Colombia’s migration agency said.

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5:14PM
Venezuelan troops unleash tear gas on protesters

Venezuela’s National Guard have fired tear gas on residents clearing a barricaded border bridge to Colombia.

The opposition is calling on masses of Venezuelans to form a “humanitarian avalanche” to escort trucks carrying the aid across several border bridges.

But clashes started at dawn in the Venezuelan border town of Urena, when residents began removing yellow metal barricades and barbed wire blocking the Francisco de Paula Santander bridge. Venezuela’s National Guard responded forcefully, firing tear gas and buckshot on the protesters, some of them masked youth throwing rocks, who demanded that the aid pass through.

Later, the youth commandeered a city bus and set it afire. At least two dozen people were injured in the disturbances, according to local health officials in Urena.

“We’re tired. There’s no work, nothing,” Andreina Montanez, 31, said as she sat on a curb crying from the tear gas that was used to disperse the crowd.

A single mom, she said she lost her job as a seamstress in December and had to console her 10-year-old daughter’s fears that she would be left orphaned when she decided to join Saturday’s protest.

“I told her I had to go out on the streets because there’s no bread,” she said. “But still, these soldiers are scary. It’s like they’re hunting us.”

At the Simon Bolivar bridge, a group of aid volunteers in blue vests calmly walked up to a police line and shook officers’ hands, appealing for them to join their fight.

Four National Guardsmen deserted the force early in the day and took refuge inside Colombia.

A video provided by Colombian authorities shows three of the men wading through a crowd with their assault rifles and pistols held above their heads in a sign of surrender. The young soldiers were then ordered to lay face down on the ground as migration officials urged angry onlookers to keep a safe distance.

“I’ve spent days thinking about this,” said one of the soldiers. He called on his comrades to join him: “There is a lot of discontent inside the forces, but also lots of fear.”

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said the military would “never have orders to fire on the civilian population” and likened the aid push to a media spectacle.

“We can only hope that sanity and good sense prevail in Cucuta, in Colombia, and that it will remain as a big show, a big party, and that they don’t try to open the doors to a military intervention,” he said at UN headquarters in New York Friday.

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4:54PM
Venezuelan army major recognises Juan Guaido as leader

In another blow for Mr Maduro, a major in the Venezuelan army, Hugo Enrique Parra Martínez, has publicly recognised Juan Guaidó as Commander-in-Chief of the National Armed Forces, according to reports.

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4:48PM
‘Usurper Maduro will be responsible for any violence’​

Ivan Duque, the Colombian president, has called for warned against Venezuelan troops blocking the supplies leaving from his country, saying it would be a breach of human rights laws.

“We demand that it be permitted to pass in a peaceful manner into Venezuelan territory for the benefit of those who need it,” he said in a video posted by a journalist.

If the aid is denied entry, he added, “the usurper Nicolas Maduro will be responsible for any act of violence.”

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4:26PM
How long will Venezuelan troops stay with Maduro?

The deployment of aid by the US and the Venezuelan opposition on the border with Colombia is a high stakes game to test the loyalty of Venezuela’s armed forces – effectively asking them to chose between alleviating suffering or staying faithful to the regime.

President Nicolas Maduro has ordered the troops to bar the entry of the aid convoys. But the majority of Venezuelan security forces ready to turn on President Maduro, Coddy Weddle reported from Caracas recently. Read the full story here.

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4:22PM
Protesters plead with soldiers

Meanwhile in the Venezuelan capital, protesters are heading to a military airport to beg soldiers to defy President Maduro and allow aid into the economically-stricken country.

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4:18PM
More aid trucks head to Venezuela

The Telegraph’s Harriet Alexander is following the progress of aid trucks leaving from Cucuta, Colombia which are attempting to cross into Venezuela.

Juan Guaido, self-declared interim president, appears to be riding the truck to the border.

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4:11PM
First aid shipment arrives in Venezuela

A truck carrying humanitarian aid crossed into Venezuela from Brazil at midday on Saturday, opposition lawmaker Miguel Pizarro told reporters in Caracas.

“This is a great accomplishment, Venezuela!”, opposition leader Juan Guaido says in a tweet.

A Reuters witness said, however, that while the truck was on Venezuelan soil, it had not yet passed through the customs checkpoint.

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4:02PM
Tensions flare in Urena, Venezuela
A bus that was torched during clashes with the Bolivarian National Guard burns in Urena, Venezuela
A bus that was torched during clashes with the Bolivarian National Guard burns in Urena, Venezuela Credit: AP

Clashes have intensified in Urena, the Venezuelan side of the border with Colombia. Venezuela’s national guard fired tear gas on residents clearing a barricaded border bridge between Venezuela and Colombia.

Protesters responded by stealing a red city bus and setting it on fire, according to reports on the ground. The bus has now set light to a nearby building. Flames from the bus also caused nearby power lines to spark.

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3:31PM
Brazil’s humanitarian aid has arrived on the border

The first truck with humanitarian aid from the Brazilian government has arrived in the city of Pacaraima on the border with Venezuela.

The crossing has been closed on orders from Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and the truck loaded with food and medicine will now wait in Brazilian territory.

Brazil’s Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo said he expects Mr Maduro’s government to allow the aid to pass.

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

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3:06PM
Venezuelan opposition leader arrives at the border

The Venezuelan opposition leader has arrived at the border with the leaders of Colombia, Chile and Paraguay.

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3:03PM
Defected soldiers named

We now have the names of three of the four national guard members who defected earlier this morning, Harriet Alexander reports from the border.

Three drove two tanks across the Simon Bolivar bridge, shunting the barricades out of the way to hand themselves in. The fourth walked across the Francisco de Paula Santander bridge, to huge applause.

The three have been named as Lt Richard Sánchez Zambrano, Sgt Major Edgar Torres Valera and Sgt Major Oscar Suárez Torres.

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Bron: Telegraph.co.uk

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