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Colombians flee Venezuela amid spat

By Reuters in Ernesto Guevara, Venezuela | China Daily | Updated: 2015-08-27 07:39

 Colombians flee Venezuela amid spat

Venezuelans carry their belongings through Tachira state into Colombia on Tuesday. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has blamed many of his country's problems on Colombians, creating conflict between the two neighbors. Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters

Hundreds of Colombians waded across a border river with refrigerators, chickens and mattresses on their backs - victims of an escalating dispute with the Venezuelan government.

They were followed by goats and children under a scorching tropical sun.

Saying they were forced from their rickety wooden or corrugated metal homes and scared of what might happen next if they stayed in Venezuela, they fled across the River Tachira back to their homeland on Tuesday.

"I feel impotent. I want to cry. I lost everything overnight," said Darwin Arenas, a 26-year-old Colombian, as he and his Venezuelan wife dragged their possessions across the river in a wheelbarrow.

Most of the refugees have lived for years in Ernesto Guevara, an extremely poor Venezuelan border village, or other nearby settlements, but they were forced to leave after Venezuelan authorities marked their homes with a "D" for "demolition".

Venezuela says it is cracking down on paramilitary and smuggling gangs active along the border, but the families fleeing say they have nothing to do with crime.

Some, like Arenas, a supermarket worker with two children, were deported by Venezuela. Some said that national guard officers ordered them to get out, while others decided to leave before the border crisis worsens.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has blamed many of his country's problems on Colombians, sparking a spat between the two neighbors. They share a long and porous border plagued by drug trafficking, paramilitary groups, left-wing guerrillas and smugglers.

Last week, Maduro closed a border crossing and suspended some constitutional guarantees along parts of the frontier, allowing authorities the right to search homes and businesses without a warrant. He acted after Venezuelan soldiers were injured in a firefight with smugglers.

Across the river in Colombia, authorities are helping the distraught families find refuge. Many have no idea where they are going and on Tuesday they milled around alongside their possessions on a river bank.

Colombia's disaster relief agency said it was sending 500 emergency aid kits, tents and diapers to the town of Cucuta on the Colombian side of the border.

Maduro says he is only interested in forcing out smugglers and paramilitaries and insists that human rights will be upheld. However, the Colombian government says more than 1,000 people have been deported unfairly.


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