CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – President Nicolas Maduro expanded an anti-smuggling offensive along Venezuela's frontier with Colombia and ordered the closure of the main border crossing in the country's biggest state.
The announcement late Monday was bound to deepen an ongoing diplomatic crisis with Colombia, which is struggling to absorb thousands of migrants who have fled the crackdown.
Maduro vowed to "liberate" the area subjected to the new border closure.
In just over two weeks, Maduro has closed six crossings and deported about 1,500 Colombians without legal status, blaming such migrants for a surge in crime and contraband along Venezuela's western edge.
Nearly 20,000 other Colombians, some of whom have lived in Venezuela for years, have returned voluntarily, fearing reprisals as reports spread about security forces uprooting migrants and earmarking their homes for demolition.
The flood of returnees has overwhelmed emergency shelters, leading Colombia to warn of a humanitarian crisis that could worsen if more of its estimated 5 million nationals living in Venezuela follow suit.
Until now, Maduro's offensive had targeted Tachira state across the border from Cucuta, a Boston-size city in Colombia that has long relied on smuggled gas, food and other goods purchased in Venezuela at bargain-basement subsidized prices.
In moving his focus north to Zulia state, Maduro is encroaching on a more vital economic hub around the oil metropolis of Maracaibo, Venezuela's second-largest city.
He could also face resistance from hundreds of thousands of Wayuu Indians settled on either side of the border who don't recognize the international division. The tribe has long dominated economic life on the isolated Guajira peninsula, shared by both countries on South America's northern tip, and is heavily involved in smuggling, which they don't consider an illicit act.
Venezuelan authorities said they will respect the Wayuu's traditional nomadism and increase education grant programs even as an additional 3,000 troops are deployed to Zulia.
"They are masters of their own land," Vice President Jorge Arreaza said Tuesday. "They will be free to move back and forth, just not with contraband."
Maduro also declared a state of emergency in three frontier towns in the state and said more border crossings could be closed in the coming days. In the same address, he offered to take in 20,000 refugees from the civil war in Syria.
Colombia's government did not immediately respond, but in recent days it has stepped up a diplomatic campaign against the border offensive.
Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin met with the United Nations' High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva on Monday to denounce what she called a deliberate campaign of scapegoating Colombians for Venezuela's deep-seated economic problems, such as widespread shortages and triple-digit inflation.
On Wednesday she travels to New York to meet with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who last week discussed the crisis with Maduro in China.
Maduro claims to be the target of U.S.-backed conservatives in Colombia bent on toppling his socialist government while turning a blind eye to decades of political and drug-fueled violence in Colombia that has made Venezuela a haven for many of its neighbor's poor.
He repeated an offer to meet with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to resolve the crisis.
Santos, who had patched up relations with Venezuela after a dangerous round of saber-rattling along the border in 2008 by his hardline predecessor and the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, said Monday he is open to talks if certain conditions are met.
"I am ready for dialogue but the fundamental rights, the human rights of our compatriots, must never be violated again," Santos said.
That provoked an angry retort from Maduro: "I am the only one who places conditions, because you are the aggressors."