Maduro cuts ties with Colombia as at least four killed in Venezuela border clashes
Venezuela's embattled President Nicolas Maduro has severed diplomatic ties with Colombia amid escalating violence, as opposition activists tried to defy a government ban and bring food and medical supplies into the country.
After accusing Bogota of "lending itself to an aggression against Venezuela", Maduro said Colombian diplomats had been ordered to leave Venezuela within the next 24 hours.
His announcement took place against a backdrop of violent border clashes which saw at least four people killed, hundreds injured and dozens of soldiers switch loyalties to opposition leader and National Assembly President Juan Guaidó, who is backed by the U.S. and a growing international coalition.
Reacting to Maduro's decision, Colombia's Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo said Colombia did not recognise the "legitimacy" of the Venezuelan leader but would withdraw its diplomatic staff from Caracas for security reasons.
Saturday was a critical day in the ongoing political standoff in Venezuela between Maduro's government and the main opposition leader, Juan Guiadó. Venezuelan troops fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters attempting to collect and transport the humanitarian aid.
Witnesses said masked men in civilian clothes also shot at protesters with live bullets, and three trucks of aid were set on fire by tear gas grenades on the Santander bridge connecting Venezuela to Colombia.
According to the Colombian government, more than 60 Venezuelan soldiers defected and entered Colombia on Saturday. But there were not enough to allow aid to pass the border crossings.
William Camacho, an official of the Special Forces of the Bolivarian National Police, told local news that he would join the side of Juan Guaidó: "I will not go against my people."
Efrén Linares, another Venezuelan police officer who swapped sides, told local media, "Dozens more wanted to do so but were afraid of repercussions for their families."
In addition to violence on both the Colombian and Brazilian borders with Venezuela, a Venezuelan Navy vessel threatened to "open fire" on a ship carrying humanitarian aid that was dispatched and financed by Puerto Rico's government, according to the island's governor.
As violence raged along the borders, Maduro addressed a rally in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, insisting he was “stronger than ever” and calling those trying to ship aid “traitors”.
He denounced the humanitarian aid as a pretext for military intervention.
In Cucutá, a town on the Colombian side of the border, Juan Guaidó announced that he will attend a meeting in Bogotá with the Lima Group, in spite of a travel ban imposed on him by Maduro's government. He will also meet US vice-president Mike Pence.
Guaidó declared on Twitter that the fight would continue despite the aid effort failing to breach government blockades. “Today’s events force me to make a decision: to formally propose to the international community that we must have all options open to secure the freedom of our country.”