Thousands flee to Colombia after clashes on Venezuela border

BUCARAMANGA, Colombia (AP) — Thousands of Venezuelans are seeking shelter in Colombia this week following clashes between Venezuela’s military and a Colombian armed group in a community along the nations’ shared border.

The Colombian government on Wednesday said 3,100 people have moved from Venezuela to Colombia since Sunday in search of protection from the conflict in the border state of Apure, Venezuela. Authorities in Colombia have set up eight shelters to host the influx of people.

“On Sunday, the inhabitants of the municipality of Arauquita woke up (hearing) explosions, machine guns, gunshots, with a very complex situation,” said Etelivar Torres Vargas, the mayor of Arauquita, the northeast Colombia municipality where the immigrants are seeking refuge. “The prognosis is that more Venezuelan citizens, the elderly, children, pregnant women will continue to arrive, there is a humanitarian crisis.”

Torres Vargas said the immigrants include elderly people with different illnesses who have asked for medical attention, pushing the local health system to the brink. He added that the municipality does not have the capacity to properly feed everyone.

The Colombian Ombudsman’s Office conducted a census at the site and identified the presence of 858 minors, 134 older adults and 52 pregnant women. The displaced include 223 people from the binational Sikuani Indigenous community.

Venezuelan Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino López said Monday in a statement the clashes that began Sunday resulted in the arrests of 32 people, the destruction of six camps and the seizure of weapons, but he did not name the armed group involved.

The Venezuelan government has not said whether the clashes have continued.

The Colombian government has repeatedly accused Venezuela of harboring members of the National Liberation Army and dissidents of the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym FARC. Colombia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed its concern for the civilian population and called on the international community “to join in assisting in the face of this humanitarian crisis.”

Colombia and Venezuela share about 1,370 miles (2,200 kilometers) of border but have not had diplomatic relations since February 2019 following the decision of President Nicolás Maduro to expel Colombian diplomats. Colombia President Iván Duque does not recognize Maduro as Venezuela’s legitimate president and instead supports opposition leader Juan Guaidó.