Venezuela and Colombia reopen border crossings

Thousands of Venezuelans wait to cross the border Simón Bolívar bridge between Colombia and Venezuela in San Antonio, Venezuela on Aug 13, 2016.
Thousands of Venezuelans wait to cross the border Simón Bolívar bridge between Colombia and Venezuela in San Antonio, Venezuela on Aug 13, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

SAN ANTONIO DEL TACHIRA, VENEZUELA (AFP) - Venezuela and Colombia are gradually reopening several "provisional" border crossing points for pedestrians for the first time in nearly a year, marking a turning point after long-running enmity.

More than 54,000 people entered Colombia on Saturday (Aug 13), 81 per cent of them returning to their place of origin, immigration authorities said in Bogota.

A total of six border crossings were opened in the Venezuelan states of Tachira, Apure, Zulia and Amazonas.

During three temporary border openings last month, some 150,000 Venezuelans - suffering from their country's severe economic crisis - poured into Colombia to purchase food, medicine and other basics.

Early Saturday, the flow of pedestrians was relatively light across the Simon Bolivar Bridge from Tachira to the Colombian city of Cucuta, but longer lines began to develop as the day wore on.

Both governments agreed to facilitate "the fastest possible movement of people, rapidly but in a controlled fashion," Venezuelan regional military chief Jose Morantes Torres told VTV official television.

An agreement clinched on Thursday by presidents Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela and Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia called for the border to be opened 15 hours a day.

Mr Maduro had ordered the border closing in August 2015 following an armed attack on a Venezuelan military patrol that left three soldiers wounded. It was blamed on Colombian paramilitaries.

Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles took to Twitter to criticize the closure.

"What was the Maduro border closure good for? Nothing! It just hurt people and sought excuses for his failure! Get out!" he wrote.

Mr Santos called it the "first phase of opening," without specifying when the passage of vehicles would be authorized again, key to restoring commercial activity to normal levels in the border area.

With severe shortages of commodities plaguing Venezuela - affecting some 80 percent of food and with medicine in short supply - many crossed the border into Colombia to stock up.

"We bought sugar, oil, rice, lentils and medicine," Luis Jimenez, a farmer who crossed the border and returned to Venezuela in less than four hours, told AFP.

"We are happy that the government made this decision, because it benefits the people." Carolina Quintero went to Colombia to buy chickpeas, a product she sells in Venezuela.

"It was easy for me to buy the chickpeas today. It's more expensive to buy them in Colombia, but there aren't any in Venezuela," said Ms Quintero, 42.

The 2,200km border has long been plagued by drug and contraband smuggling, another reason Mr Maduro had cited for last year's closing.

The border opening agreement also called for an exchange of customs information to help stem fuel smuggling.