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Venezuelan troops fire tear gas over humanitarian aid standoff

Venezuelan security forces clash with demonstrators in Urena, Venezuela, February 23, 2019
Venezuelan security forces clash with demonstrators in Urena, Venezuela, February 23, 2019 REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

Venezuelan security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets Saturday to disperse crowds at the Venezuela-Colombia border, closed by President Nicolas Maduro ahead of an opposition deadline to bring in humanitarian aid.

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 "We want to work!" people chanted as they faced Venezuelan National Guard riot police blocking the crossing to Colombia, one of several ordered closed by President Nicolas Maduro late Friday.

Supporters of opposition leader Juan Guaido in Colombia are planning to cross the border carrying emergency supplies into Venezuela.

Meanwhile, four National Guard troops deserted their posts near the border, one greeted by a crowd of cheering Venezuelans on the Colombian side as he walked across. Three others smashed through a security barrier on the Simon Bolivar bridge crossing in their jeep.

Supporters of opposition leader Juan Guaido in Colombia are planning to cross the border carrying emergency supplies into Venezuela. Guaido has vowed humanitarian aid would enter his country despite a blockade.

Guiado defies travel ban for Venezuela Aid Live concert.

Juan Guaido claimed the military helped him defy a travel ban by the government of President Nicolas Maduro as he joined thousands over the Colombian border on Friday for a charity concert to push for humanitarian aid deliveries.

Hours later, Caracas said it had sealed the Colombian border across the whole of Tachira -- the western state that borders Cucuta -- citing threats to Venezuela's security.

Maduro is trying to prevent food and medicines, from entering the country as tensions over access to the supplies turned deadly, prompting an angry condemnation from the United States.

The Venezuela Aid Live concert was organised by billionaire Richard Branson

Political chess through humanitarian aid

Humanitarian aid has become a key focus of the power struggle between Maduro and Guaido, who has been recognized as interim leader by more than 50 countries.

Guaido delivered a blow to Maduro as he turned up unexpectedly at the concert in the Colombian border town of Cucuta, claiming "the armed forces participated in this process" to help him flout his travel ban.

The powerful military's backing is crucial to the viability of the socialist leader, with defections strengthening Guaido's hand.

The 35-year-old leader of Venezuela's National Assembly declared himself interim president last month and is calling for fresh polls, branding Maduro a "usurper" and accusing him of rigging his re-election last May.

Protesters and Venezuelan military at Pacaraima, Brazil (Venezuelan border), 22 February 2019
Protesters and Venezuelan military at Pacaraima, Brazil (Venezuelan border), 22 February 2019 REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Two killed during military standoff at Brazilian border
 

The tense standoff over aid claimed its first casualties Friday as two indigenous people were killed trying to prevent troops from sealing unofficial pathways across the border between Venezuela and Brazil.

"An indigenous woman and her husband were killed and at least 15 other members of the Pemon indigenous community were injured," said a local human rights group, Kape Kape.

The violence occurred in southeastern Bolivar state close to the border with Brazil, which Maduro ordered closed on Thursday.

US and UN condemn violence

"The United States strongly condemns the Venezuelan military's use of force against unarmed civilians and innocent volunteers on Venezuela's border with Brazil," the White House said in a statement, adding: "The world is watching."

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also warned Venezuelan authorities "not to use lethal force against demonstrators."

Paulina Rubio from Mexico was one of the artists featured at the concert

"I'm very grateful to have been able to participate in this huge event that fosters solidarity with our Venezuelan brothers" -  Paulina Rubio

Latin-American leaders rally round for Venezuela Aid Live

The "Venezuela Aid Live" concert in Cucuta, organised by British entrepreneur Richard Branson, saw Guaido appear alongside Colombian President Ivan Duque, Chile's Sebastian Pinera and Mario Abdo of Paraguay as crowds cheered.

Presidents Ivan Duque (Colombia), Mario Abdo Benitez, (Paraguay), Sebastián Piñera (Chile) and OEA's General Secretary Luis Almagro alongside Venezuela's self-proclaimed President Juan Guaido.
Presidents Ivan Duque (Colombia), Mario Abdo Benitez, (Paraguay), Sebastián Piñera (Chile) and OEA's General Secretary Luis Almagro alongside Venezuela's self-proclaimed President Juan Guaido. ®REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

Hundreds chanted "freedom" and "the government is going to fall" while they waited for the Cucuta concert to begin on Friday under a hot sun, with the barricaded border crossing visible nearby.

"We must break the impasse, end the humanitarian crisis," billionaire Branson told the crowd shortly before veteran Venezuelan crooner Jose Luis Rodriguez began his set.

The line-up included Latin American giants Carlos Vives and Juanes of Colombia, Juan Luis Guerra of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico's Luis Fonsi.

Maduro's rival concert, decidedly smaller and featuring Venezuelan and Cuban artists, began hours later.

Performers took to the stage against a giant backdrop emblazoned with the words "#Trump Hands off Venezuela," with around 2,500 people in attendance.

A rival concert was organised in support of President Maduro at Urena, on the Venezuelan side of the border
A rival concert was organised in support of President Maduro at Urena, on the Venezuelan side of the border RFI/Marie Normand

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