Venezuela is terrorist sanctuary: Colombian president

FILE PHOTO: Colombia's President Ivan Duque gives a speech during the swearing-in ceremony of a new Congress in Bogota, Colombia, July 20, 2019. Courtesy of Colombian Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

BOGOTA (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has turned his country into a terrorist sanctuary and committed the grave error of protecting guerrilla groups and drug traffickers, Colombian President Ivan Duque said on Monday, as tensions between the neighboring countries escalated once again.

The comments came after Maduro said on Sunday that two missing former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) commanders sought by Colombian judicial authorities were “welcome in Venezuela.”

Tensions have worsened since Duque joined the United States and most Latin American countries in recognizing Juan Guaido, president of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly, as the country’s rightful leader, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

“What we are seeing is that not only has (Maduro) harbored Colombian terrorists for many years, but he ratifies more and more that Venezuela is a sanctuary for terrorists and drug traffickers,” Duque said in Shanghai, China, where he is on an official visit.

Maduro said over the weekend that Seuxis Paucias Hernandez and Luciano Marin, known respectively by their nom de guerres Jesus Santrich and Ivan Marquez, were “leaders of peace.”

Santrich and Marquez both joined the FARC’s political party after the leftist rebel group demobilized under a 2016 peace deal that ended decades of civil war. They were set to serve in congressional seats reserved for the group.

But Marquez went missing last year after his nephew was arrested and taken to the United States to cooperate with drug-trafficking investigators.

Earlier this month Colombia’s Supreme Court ordered Santrich’s arrest after he failed to appear for questioning about U.S. drug-trafficking charges.

“There is not one doubt that Santrich is protected by that dictatorial regime,” Duque said of Venezuela. “This is one more motivation to keep strengthening the diplomatic blockade.”

Duque has repeatedly said Santrich might have fled to Venezuela. Maduro said on Sunday he had learned of Santrich’s possible presence in Venezuela from Duque’s statement.

Colombian authorities believe dissident FARC rebels, who did not demobilize under the peace accord, and fighters for the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group hide in Venezuela and receive protection from Maduro. Maduro’s government has denied protecting rebels.

Maduro, who calls Guaido a U.S. puppet seeking to oust him in a coup, broke off diplomatic relations with Bogota in February after Guaido’s failed attempt to bring humanitarian aid into Venezuela via the Colombian border.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Dan Grebler)

South Korea gives most aid to North Korea since 2008 amid food shortage

FILE PHOTO: North Koreans farm in a field along the Yalu River, in Sakchu county, North Phyongan Province, North Korea, June 20, 2015. REUTERS/Jacky Chen/File Photo

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea has provided its largest food and aid donation since 2008 to U.N. aid program in North Korea, officials said on Wednesday, amid warnings that millions of dollars more is needed to make up for food shortages.

South Korea followed through on a promise to donate $4.5 million to the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), and announced it was also providing 50,000 tonnes of rice for delivery to its northern neighbor.

North Korea has said it is facing droughts, and U.N. aid agencies have said food production fell “dramatically” last year, leaving more than 10 million North Koreans at risk.

“This is the largest donation from the Republic of Korea to WFP DPRK since 2008 and will support 1.5 to 2 million children, pregnant and nursing mothers,” WFP senior spokesman Herve Verhoosel said in a statement, referring to his agency’s operation in North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

More aid would be needed, however, to make up for the shortfalls, he said.

“WFP estimates that at least 300,000 metric tons of food, valued at $275 million, is needed to scale up humanitarian assistance in support of those people most affected by significant crop losses over successive seasons,” Verhoosel said.

North Korea is under strict international sanctions over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

While inter-Korean engagement spiked last year amid a push to resolve the nuclear standoff, Seoul’s efforts to engage with Pyongyang have been less successful after a second U.S.-North Korea summit ended with no agreement in February.

SANCTIONS A PROBLEM

South Korea would work with the WFP to get the aid as quickly as possible to the North Korean people who need, the South’s Unification Ministry, which handles relations with North Korea, said in a statement.

“The timing and scale of additional food assistance to North Korea will be determined in consideration of the outcome of the aid provision this time,” the ministry said.

According to South Korean officials the rice is worth 127 billion won ($108 million).

The government would aim to have the rice delivered before September, and officials were in touch with counterparts in North Korea, Unification minister Kim Yeon-chul told reporters.

South Korea’s Agriculture Ministry said the last time South Korea sent rice to North Korea was in 2010, when 5,000 tonnes were donated. The largest donation ever was in 2005 when South Korean sent 500,000 tonnes of rice.

Seoul also recently donated $3.5 million to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) for humanitarian projects in North Korea.

Technically humanitarian aid is not blocked by the sanctions, but aid organizations said sanctions enforcement and a U.S. ban on its citizens traveling to North Korea had slowed and in some cases prevented aid from reaching the country.

Aid shipments have also been controversial because of fears that North Korea’s authoritarian government would divert the supplies or potentially profit off it.

Verhoosel said the WFP would require “high standards for access and monitoring” to be in place before distributing any aid.

In March, Russia donated more than 2,000 tonnes of wheat to the WFP’s North Korea program.

(Reporting by Josh Smith. Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin.; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Soldiers held hostage, villagers killed: the untold story of Venezuelan aid violence

FILE PHOTO: A crashed car is seen at the scene where Venezuelan soldiers opened fire on indigenous people near the border with Brazil on Friday, according to community members, in Kumarakapay, Venezuela, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/William Urdaneta/File Photo NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

By Maria Ramirez

KUMARAKAPAY, Venezuela (Reuters) – At dawn on February 22, as Venezuela’s opposition was preparing to bring humanitarian aid into the country, a convoy of military vehicles drove into the indigenous village of Kumarakapay on its way to the Brazilian border.

Members of the Pemon community, a tribe whose territory includes the road to Brazil, wanted to keep the border open to ensure the aid got through despite President Nicolas Maduro commanding the military to block it.

Before dawn, the villagers had ordered military vehicles headed toward the border to turn around, citing the tribe’s constitutionally guaranteed autonomy over their territory.

But the army convoy that arrived at dawn was moving quickly and the tribesman were only able to stop the last of the four vehicles – a Jeep carrying four National Guard officials, who told the villagers they were working on a mining project.

Believing the officers were on their way to block the aid, several villagers pulled them from the vehicle, seized their weapons and detained them, according to interviews with 15 villagers.

Some of the other soldiers, who had stopped several hundred meters ahead, got out of their vehicles with weapons in hand and approached. Shouting broke out and one of the soldiers fired a shot downward onto the road, according to the villagers and a cellphone video seen by Reuters that was filmed by a resident.

The remaining soldiers began firing repeatedly in the direction of the village as they ran back toward their vehicles, according to witnesses and the video.

The shooting would leave dozens of villagers wounded and three villagers dead, an unusually bloody confrontation between Venezuelan troops and indigenous people.

The incident itself was widely reported on the day it took place but has drawn little scrutiny until Reuters examined it.

The repercussions included the arrest of 23 Pemon tribesmen, some of whom say they were beaten in custody. Pemon villagers also held more than 40 members of the military hostage, some of whom suffered severe bites after being left half-naked atop ant nests in retribution for the killings, according to interviews with Pemon tribe members.

The incidents are a stark illustration of how Venezuela’s economic and political crises have undermined the once-close relationship between impoverished indigenous communities and a socialist movement launched two decades ago by Maduro’s predecessor, president Hugo Chavez, which had promised to help them.

“We couldn’t understand the attitude of Maduro’s regime of using arms against indigenous people,” said Guillermo Rodriguez, brother of Zoraida Rodriguez, one of the people killed in Kumarakapay.

Rodriguez now lives in the Brazilian border town of Pacaraima after fleeing the violence in late February. He is one of nearly 1,000 members of the Pemon tribe who crossed into Brazil, many on foot, according to the Brazil office of the International Organization for Migration.

They now live in wooden huts they built themselves or camped under canvas donated by the United Nations refugee commission.

The incident followed recent tensions in southern Venezuela between military officers and Pemon tribesmen involved in informal gold mining operations. The Pemon complain of extortion and shakedowns by troops.

The National Guard, the information ministry – which handles media enquiries for the Venezuelan government – and the defense ministry did not respond to requests for this story.

However, Maduro’s government has in the past denied mistreatment of the Pemon. It says the Pemon, who live in southern Venezuela and northern Brazil and number about 30,000 in total, have benefited from state resources and increased autonomy.

The government has not commented on the extortion accusations, but Maduro in recent years has said that opposition leaders are involved in gold “mafias.”

Bolivar state governor Justo Noguera of the ruling Socialist Party in a March interview with Reuters blamed the violence on armed members of the Pemon tribe, without presenting evidence. He added that the incident is under investigation.

“Unfortunately, there were terrorist acts. They attacked a unit of our Bolivarian Army that was only carrying communications equipment,” said Noguera. “There were elements within the peaceful community of Kumarakapay that were armed, and the community rejects that.”

U.S.-BACKED AID CONVOYS

Opposition leader Juan Guaido, who invoked the constitution in January to assume an interim presidency, led the attempt to bring U.S.-backed aid convoys across Venezuela’s borders in an effort to shame Maduro for refusing to accept foreign aid despite shortages of food and basic goods.

Maduro said the aid effort was a disguised invasion by Washington. He said the Trump administration should have lifted economic and oil industry sanctions if it really wanted to help Venezuelans.

The tribal leaders of Kumarakapay were the first of the main Pemon communities in the area to openly support the aid plan.

When residents learned of the killings in Kumarakapay on February 22, a group of them beat the four members of the National Guard held hostage that morning, according to two villagers who witnessed the events.

That same day, a group of around 10 Pemon tribesmen from the village of Maurak detained 42 members of the National Guard at a small airport in the town of Santa Elena, about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from the border with Brazil and 75 kilometers (47 miles) south of Kumarakapay, according to one Pemon tribal leader.

They drove the troops to a small farm at the edge of the jungle and ordered them to sit on top of fire ant hills, said a second tribal leader, who also asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the tribe.

Bites by fire ants can be painful and are known to cause blisters severe enough to warrant hospital attention.

Some of the troops were tied up and beaten, one of the leaders said, noting that some Pemon members had objected to their detention and to the violence against them.

“Everything was out of control,” he said.

A second leader, who also asked not to be identified, said that during the detention villagers put hot peppers in the troops’ mouths and on their genitals.

The Pemon chieftain’s council did not respond to requests for comment.

The following day, on February 23, residents of Kumarakapay sought to block another group of military vehicles from reaching the border. Four village residents brought in General Jose Montoya, the National Guard commander for Bolivar state, to help convince the military convoys not to go to the border.

However, National Guard troops handcuffed the four Pemon, covered their faces with masks and pushed them into police vehicles, according to resident Aldemaro Perez. Montoya was detained at the same time and all five were taken to an army base called Escamoto.

“So you Pemon tribesmen think you’re tough? You’re going to die here,” Perez recalls one police officer shouting.

FILE PHOTO: The covered body of a dead person is seen after Venezuelan soldiers opened fire on indigenous people near the border with Brazil on Friday, according to community members, in Kumarakapay, Venezuela, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/William Urdaneta/File Photo NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

FILE PHOTO: The covered body of a dead person is seen after Venezuelan soldiers opened fire on indigenous people near the border with Brazil on Friday, according to community members, in Kumarakapay, Venezuela, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/William Urdaneta/File Photo NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

Perez, 35, a community leader in Kumarakapay, did not identify any specific policemen or soldiers involved in his detention. Details of his account were confirmed to Reuters by three other detained Pemon tribesmen and a representative of civil rights group Penal Forum, who also said they were unable to identify the specific individuals or military units involved.

Noguera, the Bolivar state governor, denied the detained men were beaten in custody.

Reuters was unable to determine why the National Guard used police vehicles to transport detainees to the army base, nor why they detained Montoya – who was stripped of his post in a resolution published days later in the Official Gazette. The resolution did not say the reasons for his dismissal.

Reuters was unable to obtain comment from Montoya or determine his whereabouts.

A regional military command center operating in Bolivar state and the interior ministry, which oversees the National Police, did not respond to requests for comment.

(Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Pacaraima, Brazil; Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Edward Tobin)

Yemen’s Houthis deny U.N. access to Hodeidah mills for ‘safety reasons’: sources

ADEN (Reuters) – Houthi forces denied the United Nations access to a grain storage site in the Yemeni port of Hodeidah on Tuesday, sources familiar with the matter said, hindering efforts to increase food aid to millions facing severe hunger.

Hodeidah is the entry point for most of Yemen’s humanitarian aid and commercial imports. World Food Programme (WFP) grain stores there have been cut off in the conflict zone for six months, putting the contents at risk of rotting.

A WFP technical team was scheduled to cross the front line between the Iran-aligned Houthi movement forces and the Saudi-backed government on the eastern outskirts of Hodeidah to fumigate the wheat stored in the Red Sea Mills.

But Houthi forces told the WFP team they could not leave Houthi-held areas inside Hodeidah city for “security reasons”, asking the United Nations instead for a way to investigate attacks on the mills.

“The Houthis argued that government forces will target the U.N. and then they will be blamed for it,” one source aware of the discussion said. “(But) if the wheat is not fumigated, it will be lost.”

The WFP regained access to the mills last month, a step hailed by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. The grain stores there have more than 51,000 tonnes of wheat, enough to feed 3.7 million people.

WFP spokesman Herve Verhoosel said a WFP mission to the Red Sea Mills was scheduled for Tuesday but was postponed due to “safety concerns”. Verhooseldeclined to give details.

Houthi officials did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment.

Yemeni government officials accused the Houthis of another violation of the peace agreement signed last year which the United Nations has been struggling to implement.

The Houthis and the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi agreed at U.N.-sponsored talks in December to a truce and troop withdrawal from Hodeidah.

But talks aimed at securing a mutual military withdrawal from Hodeidah have stalled despite U.N. efforts to salvage the deal and nudge both sides to agree on steps toward disengagement after four years of war.

Under the deal, the government retreat would free up access to the Red Sea Mills and humanitarian corridors would also be reopened. The warring sides would still need to agree on which road could be used to transport supplies from the site to needy recipients.

The WFP is now reaching about 10 million Yemenis per month with food aid and hopes to scale up to 12 million this year, but sporadic clashes make Hodeidah and its province unsafe despite the ceasefire agreement.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are leading a military coalition that is backing Hadi government forces fighting the Houthis. The war that killed tens of thousands and thrust Yemen to the verge of famine.

(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi, Mohamed Ghobari and Lisa Barrington; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.S. border agents redeployed to handle migrant humanitarian needs

FILE PHOTO: Migrants from Central America are seen escorted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials after crossing the border from Mexico to surrender to the officials in El Paso, Texas, U.S., in this pictured taken from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez/File Photo

By Julio-Cesar Chavez

(Reuters) – U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will pull around 750 officers off ports of entry and redeploy them to process record numbers of migrant families entering the United States at the Mexico border, the head of the agency said on Wednesday.

The agency is also redirecting service personnel and expanding food, transportation and medical contracts to meet migrants’ humanitarian needs while maintaining border security, CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said at a news conference in El Paso, Texas.

“There will be impacts to traffic at the border. There will be a slowdown in the processing of trade,” he said.

March is on track for the highest number of monthly border crossings in over a decade, with more than 100,000 apprehensions and encounters of people deemed inadmissible at U.S. ports of entry, McAleenan said.

Apprehensions and encounters of families were expected to reach over 55,000 people in March, McAleenan said, the highest level for any month on record, according to CBP data.

In recent years, there has been a shift in border crossings from mainly single, adult Mexicans trying to evade capture to Central American families and unaccompanied minors turning themselves in to border agents to seek asylum. Because of limits on how long children can be held in detention, most families are released to pursue their claims in U.S. immigration courts, a process that can take years.

McAleenan said up to 40 percent of CBP personnel in sectors like El Paso were now working to care for migrants’ humanitarian needs. Smugglers are using the distraction of large groups of asylum seekers to traffic drugs and migrants seeking to evade capture, he said.

For the first time in over a decade, CBP is directly releasing migrants into the United States when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is unable to provide bed space to relieve overcrowding, McAleenan said.

“We are doing everything we can to simply avoid a tragedy in a CBP facility,” said McAleenan. “With these numbers, with the types of illnesses we’re seeing at the border, I fear that it’s just a matter of time.”

Border Patrol agents on Monday located a two-year-old Honduran child near Quemado, Texas, who appeared to be suffering from seizures and convulsions. The child was taken to the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio for more advanced care, the agency said in a statement.

The hospital declined to comment on the child’s condition, due to patient privacy. Border Patrol officials were not immediately available to comment.

Two Guatemalan minors died while in U.S. Border Patrol custody in December.

The president has taken aim at the asylum system and earlier this year began sending a small number of migrants back to Mexican border towns to wait out their U.S. hearings.

As of March 26, around 370 migrants had been returned to Mexico under the program, according to a Mexican immigration official.

(Reporting by Julio-Cesar Chavez in San Antonio; Additional reporting by Andrew Hay in New Mexico and Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City; Editing by Mica Rosenberg, Leslie Adler and Rosalba O’Brien)

Venezuela’s Guaido risks arrest as he returns home to defy Maduro

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognized as the country's rightful interim ruler, waves next to his wife Fabiana Rosales while leaving a hotel in Salinas, Ecuador March 3, 2019. REUTERS/Daniel Tapia

By Angus Berwick

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido plans to risk arrest by returning home on Monday, after he ignored a court-imposed travel ban and toured Latin American countries to boost support for his campaign to oust President Nicolas Maduro.

Guaido’s return, details of which his team have kept under wraps, could become the next flashpoint in his duel with Maduro as he seeks to keep up momentum and spur his international backers to further isolate the socialist government.

His arrest could allow the opposition to highlight how the Maduro administration represses political foes and prompt the United States to impose even harsher sanctions. But it could also strip the opposition of a public figurehead who has brought unity after years of infighting.

Guaido, who is recognized as Venezuela’s legitimate head of state by most Western countries, said on Sunday he would undertake the “historic challenge” of returning in time to lead protests on Monday and Tuesday during the Carnival holiday period, an unusual time for demonstrations.

By 10.30 a.m. local time, Guaido still had not appeared in Caracas, though in a recorded message posted on his Twitter account he said he was en route to his home and he would be with “the men and women I most admire” in a few hours.

“Upon my arrival, whatever path the dictator takes, we are going to continue,” he said.

Guaido secretly left Venezuela for Colombia, in violation of a Supreme Court order, to coordinate efforts there on Feb. 23 to send humanitarian aid into Venezuela to alleviate widespread shortages of food and medicine.

But troops loyal to Maduro blocked convoys of aid trucks sent from Colombia and Brazil, leading to clashes that killed at least six people along the Brazilian border, rights groups say.

From Colombia, he then traveled to Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay to shore up Latin American support for a transition government that would precede free and fair elections.

On Sunday, he departed by plane from the Ecuadorean coastal town of Salinas but has not appeared publicly since, beyond a Twitter broadcast that evening from an undisclosed location.

To arrive in Caracas by Monday morning, he could take commercial flights from Bogota, Panama City or Miami. A Reuters reporter on the one morning flight from Bogota said he was not on it.

Maduro, who has called Guaido a coup-mongering U.S. puppet and denies there is a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, has said his arrest depends on the justice system.

“He can’t just come and go. He will have to face justice, and justice prohibited him from leaving the country,” he told ABC News last week.

The United States has warned Maduro of the consequences of arresting Guaido and the Treasury imposed new sanctions on Friday targeting Venezuelan military officials.

“Any threats or acts against his safe return will be met with a strong and significant response from the United States and the international community,” U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said on Twitter on Sunday.

After the military blocked the aid convoys, Guaido proposed that “all options be kept open” to topple Maduro, but foreign military intervention is seen as unlikely and his international backers are instead using a mix of sanctions and diplomacy.

The government has jailed dozens of opposition leaders and activists for seeking to overthrow Maduro through violent street demonstrations in 2014 and 2017, including Guaido’s mentor, Leopoldo Lopez, who remains under house arrest.

(Reporting by Angus Berwick; Additional reporting by Vivian Sequera in Caracas, from Marco Bello in Bogota and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Susan Thomas)

U.S. imposes more sanctions on Venezuela amid humanitarian aid fight

A Venezuelan flag waves above the corporate logo of Banesco bank at one of their office complexes in Caracas, Venezuela May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States imposed fresh sanctions on Venezuela on Friday, targeting six Venezuelan government officials tied to President Nicolas Maduro, in its latest move to squeeze the embattled leader.

In a statement, the U.S. Department of Treasury cited the battle over humanitarian assistance and blamed the six current or former security officials, who it said controlled groups that blocked aid from reaching people in the Latin American country.

“We are sanctioning members of Maduro’s security forces in response to the reprehensible violence, tragic deaths, and unconscionable torching of food and medicine destined for sick and starving Venezuelans,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said after deadly violence blocked humanitarian aid from reaching Venezuela over the weekend.

The United States “will continue to target Maduro loyalists prolonging the suffering of the victims of this man-made humanitarian crisis,” Mnuchin added.

Friday’s action is the second set of sanctions this week, after the United States on Monday targeted four Venezuelan state governors allied with Maduro. Washington on Monday also called on allies to freeze the assets of state-owned oil company PDVSA.

U.S. sanctions block any assets the individuals control in the United States and bars U.S. entities from doing any business or financial transactions with them.

(Reporting by Makini Brice and Susan Heavey; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Venezuela hit with new U.S. sanctions after aid clashes

By Roberta Rampton and Luis Jaime Acosta

BOGOTA (Reuters) – The United States targeted Venezuela’s government with new sanctions on Monday and called on allies to freeze the assets of its state-owned oil company PDVSA after deadly violence blocked aid from reaching the crisis-hit country during the weekend.

The United States also took its pressure campaign to the United Nations Security Council, asking that body to discuss the situation in Venezuela, diplomats said.

The U.S. Treasury Department’s sanctions were imposed on four Venezuelan state governors allied with the government of embattled President Nicolas Maduro, blocking any assets they control in the United States.

The new sanctions were announced in Bogota as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and opposition leader Juan Guaido met with members of the Lima Group, a bloc of nations from Argentina to Canada dedicated to peaceful resolution of the Venezuelan crisis.

Pence said the United States would stand by Guaido until freedom was restored to the oil-rich nation. He called for all Lima Group nations to immediately freeze PDVSA’s assets and to transfer ownership of “Venezuelan”assets “in their countries” from “Maduro’s henchmen” to Guaido’s government-in-waiting.

He also said tougher measures were coming.

“In the days ahead … the United States will announce even stronger sanctions on the regime’s corrupt financial networks,” Pence said. “We will work with all of you to find every last dollar that they stole and work to return it to Venezuela.”

Guaido, sitting next to Pence at the meeting, asked for a moment of silence for those killed in what he called the “massacre” of the weekend.

At least three people were killed and almost 300 wounded during the protests and clashes on Saturday as U.S.-backed aid convoys attempted to enter Venezuela to deliver food and medicine.

Guaido, recognized by most Western nations as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, has urged the bloc to consider “all options” in ousting Maduro.

Unlike the Lima Group, of which the United States is not a member, the Trump administration has so far declined to rule out the use of military force. But Peruvian Deputy Foreign Minister Hugo de Zela Martinez denied there was any division in the group over the use of force.

Pence also called for Mexico and Uruguay, two-left leaning regional governments, to join most of the region’s other powers in embracing Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful president.

Washington wants the 15-member U.N. Security Council to formally call for free, fair and credible presidential elections with international observers. Russia, which along with China has major investments in Venezuela’s energy sector and back Maduro, proposed a rival draft resolution.

Violence escalated during the weekend when the convoy of trucks with food and medicines was blocked by soldiers and armed groups loyal to Maduro. He says the aid efforts are part of a U.S.-orchestrated coup against the OPEC member.

In the Venezuelan town of San Antonio, near the border with Colombia, residents on Monday chafed at the continued border closure ordered by Maduro’s government last week.

Residents increasingly cross into the neighboring country to work and buy basic goods that are unavailable in Venezuela, which has been wracked by years of hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine. Illegal crossings over back roads known as “trochas” generally require paying tolls to low-level criminals who control them, known as “trocheros.”

“We were hungry when before the border closed. Now it will be even worse,” said Belkis Garcia, 34, walking with her husband along a trail that leads to Colombia. “We have to pay (to cross), so the little money we have for half the food is not enough. We don’t know what will happen if the border continues closed.”

Four people have been killed, 58 have suffered bullet wounds and at least 32 arrested in unrest since Friday, local rights group Penal Forum said in a press conference.

The four governors sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury include the flamboyant Rafael Lacava of state of Carabobo, who in 2018 visited Washington as part of talks that led to the release of Joshua Holt, an American who was imprisoned in Venezuela for nearly two years. Lacava goes by the nickname “Dracula” in reference to his habit of doing late-night patrols and is known for off-the-cuff social media videos.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta, Roberta Rampton, Helen Murphy and Julia Symmes Cobb; Additional reporting by Mitra Taj in Lima, Aislinn Laing in Santiago, Lisandra Paraguassu in Brasilia, Mayela Armas and Anggy Polanco in Urena, and Shaylim Castro in Caracas; Writing by Helen Murphy and Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Bill Trott)

As tensions over aid rise, Venezuelan troops fire on villagers, kill two

People waiting to cross to Venezuela gesture at the border between Venezuela and Brazil in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

By Carlos Suniaga and Nelson Bocanegra

KUMARAKAPAY, Venezuela/CUCUTA, Colombia (Reuters) – Venezuelan soldiers opened fire on indigenous people near the border with Brazil on Friday, killing two, witnesses said, as President Nicolas Maduro sought to block U.S.-backed efforts to bring aid into his economically devastated nation.

The United States, which is among dozens of Western nations to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president, has been stockpiling aid in the Colombian frontier town of Cucuta to ship across the border this weekend.

With tensions running high after Guaido invoked the constitution to declare an interim presidency last month, Maduro has denied there is a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela despite widespread shortages of food and medicine and hyperinflation.

Maduro, who took power in 2013 and was re-elected in an election last year widely viewed as fraudulent, says opposition efforts to bring in aid are a U.S.-backed “cheap show” to undermine his government.

The socialist president has declared Venezuela’s southern border with Brazil closed and threatened to do the same with the Colombian border ahead of a Saturday deadline by the opposition to bring in humanitarian assistance.

A fundraising concert for Venezuela, backed by British billionaire Richard Branson and featuring major Latin pop stars like Luis Fonsi of “Despacito” fame, attracted nearly 200,000 in Cucuta on Friday, organizers said.

Some political analysts say Saturday’s showdown is less about solving Venezuela’s needs and more about testing the military’s loyalty toward Maduro by daring it to turn the aid away.

With inflation running at more than 2 million percent a year and currency controls restricting imports of basic goods, a growing share of the country’s roughly 30 million people is suffering from malnutrition.

Friday’s violence broke out in the village of Kumarakapay in southern Venezuela after an indigenous community stopped a military convoy heading toward the border with Brazil that they believed was attempting to block aid from entering, according to community leaders Richard Fernandez and Ricardo Delgado.

Soldiers later entered the village and opened fire, killing a couple and injuring several others, they said.

“I stood up to them to back the humanitarian aid,” Fernandez told Reuters. “And they came charging at us. They shot innocent people who were in their homes, working.”

Seven of the 15 injured earlier on Friday were rushed by ambulance across the border and were being treated at the Roraima General Hospital in the Brazilian frontier city of Boa Vista, a spokesman for the state governor’s office said.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not reply to a request for comment. Diosdado Cabello, one of the most prominent figures in Maduro’s Socialist Party, accused the civilians involved in the clash of being “violent groups” directed by the opposition.

Venezuelan security forces have executed dozens and detained hundreds of others since protests broke out in January against Maduro’s swearing-in, according to civil rights groups.

The United States condemned “the killings, attacks, and the hundreds of arbitrary detentions”, a State Department official said on Friday.

Meanwhile China, which along with Russia backs Maduro, warned humanitarian aid should not be forced in because doing so could lead to violence.

BLOODSHED ‘NOT IN VAIN’

The bloodshed contrasted with the joyous ambiance at Branson’s “Venezuela Aid Live” in Cucuta, where Venezuelan and Colombian attendees, some crying, waved flags and chanted “freedom” under a baking sun.

“Is it too much to ask for freedom after 20 years of ignominy, of a populist Marxist dictatorship?” Venezuelan artist Jose Luis “El Puma” Rodreguez asked. “To the Venezuelans there, don’t give up, the blood that has been spilled was not in vain”.

Earlier in the day, Branson held a news conference near a never-used road border bridge that has become a symbol of Maduro’s refusal to let aid in after authorities blocked the bridge with shipping containers.

“What we’re hoping is that the authorities in Venezuela will see this wonderful, peaceful concert…and that the soldiers will do that right thing,” Branson said.

Guaido has vowed the opposition will on Saturday bring in foreign aid being stockpiled in Cucuta, the Brazilian town of Boa Vista and the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao, setting up more clashes with Maduro’s security forces.

He set off toward the Colombian border on Thursday in a convoy with opposition lawmakers to oversee the effort but did not disclose his location on Friday out of security concerns, according to his aides.

“You must decide which side you are on in this definitive hour,” Guaido wrote on Twitter. “To all the military: between today and tomorrow, you will define how you want to be remembered.”

Venezuelan National guards block the road at the border between Venezuela and Brazil in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Venezuelan National guards block the road at the border between Venezuela and Brazil in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Guaido’s move to assume the interim presidency and international backing has galvanized Venezuela’s opposition, which has vowed to keep protesting until Maduro steps down. It previously staged major protests in 2014 and 2017 that waned in the face of government crackdowns.

Yet some government critics are concerned it will take more than pressure to force Maduro to step down.

“The truth is that not even 10 concerts will make damned Maduro leave office,” said Darwin Rendon, one of the 3.4 million Venezuelans to have emigrated since 2015 to find work. He sends what little he can earn selling cigarettes back to his family in Caracas.

“This regime is difficult to remove,” he added.

(Reporting by Carlos Suniaga and William Urdaneta in Kumarakapay, Venezuela; Nelson Bocanegra and Steven Grattan in Cucuta, Colombia; Julia Symmes Cobb and Helen Murphy in Bogota; Brian Ellsworth, Vivian Sequera, Corina Pons and Sarah Marsh in Caracas; Lesley Wroughton in Washington Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in BrasiliaWriting by Sarah MarshEditing by Bill Trott and Paul Simao)

Crowds see off Venezuela convoy headed to Colombia border for aid

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognized as the country's rightful interim ruler, attends a news conference to mark the 5th anniversary of the arrest of the opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez in Caracas, Venezuela February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

By Angus Berwick and Vivian Sequera

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido left Caracas with some 80 lawmakers on Thursday on a 800-km (500-mile) trip to the Colombian border where they hope to receive food and medicine to alleviate shortages in defiance of President Nicolas Maduro.

Crowds formed alongside a main highway out of the capital, waving Venezuelan flags and whooping in support, as the convoy of buses departed.

Guaido, recognized by dozens of countries as Venezuela’s legitimate head of state, has pledged to bring in the humanitarian aid by land and sea on Saturday. Guaido invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency on Jan. 23 and denounces Maduro as an usurper.

“Through this call for humanitarian aid, the population will benefit from the arrival of these goods to the Venezuelan border,” said opposition legislator Edgar Zambrano, as he waited to board a bus in a plaza of eastern Caracas.

Maduro’s beleaguered socialist government denies there is an economic crisis in Venezuela and has said soldiers would be stationed along the country’s borders to prevent potential incursions.

He accuses the Trump administration, which recognizes Guaido and is supporting the relief effort but has levied crippling sanctions against his government, of seeking to force his ouster.

Guaido still has not provided details on how they will bring in the aid. Opposition figures have suggested forming human chains across the Colombian border to pass aid packages from person to person and fleets of boats arriving from the Dutch Caribbean islands.

The United States has sent tons of aid to Colombia’s border with Venezuela, which Maduro has mocked as a “cheap show.” Maduro’s vice president, Delcy Rodriguez, has alleged the aid is poisonous and could lead to cancer.

On Wednesday, Maduro’s socialist administration said it had closed the country’s maritime border with the Dutch Caribbean islands of Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire after Curacao’s government said it would help store aid destined for Venezuela.

Colombia expelled five Venezuelans from Cucuta for “carrying forward activities which attack citizen security and social order,” its migration agency said in a statement late on Wednesday.

“We know there is interest by the Maduro dictatorship in affecting national security because of coming events,” agency director Christian Kruger added in the statement.

(Reporting by Angus Berwick and Vivian Sequera; Additional reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota; Editing by Bernadette Baum, Bill Trott and Sonya Hepinstall)