BOGOTA, Colombia – Colombia is giving citizenship to dozens of Venezuelans separated from family members as part of President Nicolas Maduro's crackdown on illegal immigration along the border.
Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin said the move would allow at least 158 Venezuelans living in their homeland to be reunited with parents or spouses among the estimated 11,000 Colombians who were deported or who abandoned their homes during Maduro's campaign to rid Venezuela's western edge of smugglers and criminal gangs.
"The most incredible thing is that now, in the 21st century, people come to you crying because their children are Venezuelan and they think they're going to be taken away," Holguin said in a Cabinet meeting held Tuesday in the border city of Cucuta, where more than 2,000 people are receiving assistance in emergency shelters.
The move is the strongest response yet by President Juan Manuel Santos as he tries to rally international support about what he says is a humanitarian crisis raging along the two nations' 1,400 mile (2,200 kilometer) border.
In the past two weeks, Maduro has closed six border crossings, declared a state of emergency in 10 cities and deported 1,100 Colombians he accuses of sabotaging the economy and fueling crime. Another 10,000 Colombians, many of whom had been living in Venezuela for years, returned voluntarily fearing reprisals.
The offensive looks far from over, with Venezuelan officials threatening to extend restrictions to two other border states. Holguin on Tuesday said that 32 Colombians had been deported from the far-away capital of Caracas although Venezuelan officials had yet to confirm the account.
Santos in a nationally televised address Tuesday night vowed to redouble his efforts to denounce Venezuela's mistreatment of Colombian migrants after the Organization of American States in Washington refused to take up the matter.
Borrowing a tactic frequently used by Maduro's socialist government when it wants to bring attention to one of its causes, Santos invited the diplomatic corps in Colombia to attend Tuesday's Cabinet meeting and to hear firsthand from the more than 3,000 migrants living in one of 12 emergency shelters set up along the border. Among the 18 diplomats who took up the offer was U.S. Ambassador Kevin Whitaker.
As part of the diplomatic offensive, Holguin will travel to Geneva and New York next week to meet with the United Nations' High Commissioner for Human Rights and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. The chief prosecutor's office is also collecting evidence to possibly lodge a complaint against members of Maduro's government at the International Criminal Court.
Even as both governments dig in for what appears to be a prolonged fight, leaders of Venezuela's opposition, who have condemned Maduro's actions, urged Santos to not be taken in by what it considers a government strategy to provoke Colombia and distract attention from a punishing economic crisis ahead of December legislative elections.
"The national government is capable of generating a war with Colombia to avoid the elections," said Gov. Henrique Capriles, a former presidential candidate.
Venezuelan officials deny they've violated human rights and point to the fact their nation has for decades been a safe haven for millions of poor Colombians displaced by their country's long-running civil conflict. They also accuse Santos of playing politics himself ahead of regional elections next month.
"Santos' attitude is totally and absolutely anti Venezuelan and full of hatred," said National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello.
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AP Writer Fabiola Sanchez contributed to this report from Caracas, Venezuela