Maduro threatens to close Colombia border as opposition's Guaido travels to receive aid

Juan Guaido greeting supporters as he arrives to take part in a demonstration, in Caracas, on Feb 20, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

CARACAS (REUTERS) - Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido left Caracas with some 80 lawmakers on Thursday (Feb 21) headed for the Colombian border where they hope to receive humanitarian aid in defiance of President Nicolas Maduro, who threatened to close it.

Guaido, who is recognised by dozens of countries as Venezuela's legitimate head of state, is poised for a showdown with Maduro's beleaguered government on Saturday, when the opposition plans to attempt to bring in food and medicine piling up on the Colombian side.

Maduro denies there is a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela and said on Thursday he was considering closing the border with Colombia and would close the border with Brazil.

The government has said soldiers will be stationed at crossing points to repel any "territorial violations."

The opposition lawmakers set off from Caracas just after 10am on an 800km road trip to the Colombian border. Crowds formed alongside a main highway out of the capital, waving Venezuelan flags and whooping in support, as the convoy of buses departed.

A roadblock at a tunnel some 100km along the main road forced several buses to stop, Reuters witnesses and lawmakers said. At the tunnel's exit, lawmakers scuffled with soldiers wearing riot gear, TV footage showed.

"We have a commitment and that is to reach the border. We will try to get as far as we can," lawmaker Mariela Magallanes told Reuters by telephone from the scene. "Humanitarian aid is not the whim of a few lawmakers, it is a necessity."

Magallanes said her vehicle managed to pass through the tunnel after being stuck for several hours but other buses remained behind.

Lawmakers said Guaido's vehicle continued but his exact location was being kept a secret due to security concerns.

The Information Ministry did not respond to a request to comment.

'TOTAL CLOSURE'

Tons of aid sent by the US and Colombian governments to alleviate shortages is sitting in warehouses on the Colombian side of the border. Brazil's government on Tuesday also pledged to deliver aid.

In televised comments on Thursday, Maduro said the stockpiling was a provocation.

"I don't want to take any decision of this type, but I am evaluating it, a total closure of the border with Colombia," he said.

Guaido invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency on Jan 23 and denounces Maduro as an usurper who has devastated the country. The economy's size has halved over the past five years.

Some political analysts say Saturday's border showdown is less about solving Venezuela's needs and more about testing the military's loyalty towards Maduro by daring it to turn the aid away. Guaido has offered future amnesties to military officers who disavow Maduro, though few have so far done so.

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

One opposition lawmaker in south-eastern Bolivar state said he and some 20 other politicians would travel to the border with Brazil.

Maduro accuses the Trump administration, which recognises Guaido and has levied crippling sanctions against the Venezuelan government, of seeking to force his ouster.

Gustavo Marcano, senior aide to the opposition's envoy to Washington, told reporters in the US capital on Thursday that 11 diplomats in the United States have defected from Maduro's government since Guaido declared himself interim president.

He said bank accounts for Venezuelan embassies and consulates in the United States had been frozen and that Maduro's diplomatic network in the country had ceased to function.

Maduro's socialist administration said on Wednesday 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.

A boat carrying 250 tonnes of aid has left Puerto Rico's capital of San Juan headed for Venezuela, the local government said in a statement.

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