Venezuelans fleeing to Colombia accuse soldiers of abuse

By Luis Jaime Acosta

ARAUQUITA MUNICIPALITY (Reuters) – Venezuelans fleeing to Colombia to escape clashes between the Venezuelan military and irregular armed groups have accused soldiers of abuse, including the killing of civilians.

The influx of thousands of refugees began on Sunday after Venezuela’s national armed forces launched an offensive against illegal armed groups in La Victoria, a municipality in Venezuela’s border province of Apure.

Venezuela is investigating allegations that members of the military have committed ill-treatment, including arresting and killing civilians, and looting and burning homes.

“They searched our house and took everything away from us. When they arrived they broke everything, the doors, they came in and took everything I had in the house, in the workshop,” said the mechanic Jose Castillo, who was with His pregnant wife and 12-year-old daughter arrived in Colombia on Friday, Reuters said.

“I couldn’t stay because they kill people. They killed some neighbors and dressed them in Venezuelan army uniforms to pass them off as guerrillas,” Castillo said.

Reuters has not been able to independently verify Castillo’s allegations or those of other displaced Venezuelans who showed photos of dead people in camouflaged uniforms with guns beside their hands on their cell phones.

The victims are residents of La Victoria and the surrounding area, they said.

The government did not immediately respond to the allegations. The country’s attorney general, Tarek Saab, wrote in a Twitter message on Friday that Venezuela would investigate the events in La Victoria and punish those responsible if human rights violations are discovered.

Hundreds of children, women, the elderly and men live on mattresses and in makeshift tents that have been set up in sports centers in Arauquita, in the Colombian province of Arauca, where they have access to food and sanitation.

Earlier this week, two Venezuelan soldiers were killed in clashes in Apure, as was the leader of an illegal armed group while 32 people were captured, the Venezuelan government said on Monday.

Dissidents from the Demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who oppose a 2016 peace deal with the Colombian government are targeted by civilians fleeing across the river that separates Colombia and Venezuela.

Since Sunday, around 4,000 people have come to Colombia from Venezuela as a result of the clashes, Juan Carlos Agudelo, government secretary of Arauquita, told Reuters.

“The situation is confusing, delicate,” he said.

Colombian President Ivan Duque has accused the government of his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro of protecting FARC dissidents and members of the National Liberation Army (ELN) in Venezuela, which the government in Caracas denies.

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