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Venezuela sends troops to Guyana's border, crossings to Colombia remain closed

CARACAS, VENEZUELA - MARCH 05:  Venezuelan soldiers pass by dignitaries while marking the first anniversary of the death of Hugo Chavez on March 5, 2014 in Caracas, Venezuela. Thousands of pro-government supporters turned out to honor Chavez and listen to his chosen successor President Nicolas Maduro speak. During an anniversary speech, Maduro announed that Venezuela is cutting diplomatic and commercial relations with Panama, citing a conspiracy.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

CARACAS, VENEZUELA - MARCH 05: Venezuelan soldiers pass by dignitaries while marking the first anniversary of the death of Hugo Chavez on March 5, 2014 in Caracas, Venezuela. Thousands of pro-government supporters turned out to honor Chavez and listen to his chosen successor President Nicolas Maduro speak. During an anniversary speech, Maduro announed that Venezuela is cutting diplomatic and commercial relations with Panama, citing a conspiracy. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)  (2014 Getty Images)

Guyana's President David Granger said Tuesday that Venezuela has deployed troops to a contested border region in what he called a "dangerous" escalation of a long-running dispute between the South American nations.

The government of President Nicolas Maduro made "extraordinary military deployments," along what Guyana considers its western border, Granger told reporters.

He called the development a "hostile and aggressive" step in a border dispute that dates to the 19th century but has grown more heated over the past year following a major off-shore oil discovery in waters claimed by both nations.

"We feel that Venezuela is treading a dangerous course at this point in time rather than seeking a peaceful resolution of the matter," Granger said. "Venezuela seems to be pursuing a very offensive and aggressive course."

The Maduro government had no immediate comment but Venezuela has long claimed a jungle area known as the Essequibo that comprises about 40 percent of Guyana's territory.

Venezuela extended its maritime claims, issuing a map that would have rendered Guyana landlocked, after a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil Corp. announced it had made a significant oil discovery about 120 miles off Guyana, which awarded the drilling concession.

Since then, the two sides have engaged in repeated rhetorical exchanges and scaled back commerce, with Guyana phasing out oil purchases from its larger neighbor and Venezuela switching to other countries for rice supplies.

Guyana has asked the U.N. to mediate the border dispute and Granger is expected to raise the issue at the upcoming General Assembly meeting.

Meanwhile, Colombia and Venezuela agreed Monday to redeploy ambassadors who were withdrawn in a month-old dispute that has paralyzed trade and movement along their border.

However, the leaders did not announce a reopening of border checkpoints, as some people on the frontier had hoped. They said only that their governments would work toward a gradual normalization of the situation on the border, without explaining what that might look like.

The crisis began when Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro deported 1,500 Colombians migrants he blamed for smuggling that his government contends has helped empty supermarket shelves in the country. An additional 16,000 Colombians, some of whom had lived in Venezuela for years, left voluntarily, fearing reprisals from troops who were seen bulldozing homes and forcing people to flee across a border river with belongings slung on their backs.

Although the deportations and mass exodus of Colombians have stopped, Maduro and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos had been sharpening criticisms of each other, while communities on both sides of the border suffered from the closure of all land crossings along a border five times the length of the one separating France and Germany.

Maduro accused Santos of being complicit in what he has alleged was a plot hatched by right-wing elements in Colombia and the U.S. to overthrow his socialist government. But he struck a conciliatory tone in his remarks after Monday's meeting, saying common sense and a spirit of mutual cooperation had prevailed.

Santos, who successfully restored relations with Venezuela after his predecessor threatened war with Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez, had thrown off his habitual restraint and said Maduro's socialist revolution was self-destructing and using tactics employed by Nazi shock troops.

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