Feb. 24 (UPI) — More than 60 Venezuelan National Guard troops defected Saturday from President Nicolas Maduro’s regime to Colombia amid an armed government blockade of humanitarian aid.
Some troops abandoned their posts at the Simon Bolivar International Bridge on the Colombia-Venezuela border, CNN reported. Two members of the Bolivarian National Guard of Venezuela fled with their families, Colombian immigration authorities said.
The Venezuelan guardsmen held rifles and handguns over their heads as they were received by Colombian migration authorities.
Opposition leader Juan Guaido, the National Assembly president, whom the United States and nearly 60 other countries have recognized as interim president instead of Maduro, hopes for more defections.
The Venezuelan National Guard fired tear gas and rubber bullets at 500 protesters, attempting to rush into Colombia, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Injured were 285 people, including 37 hospitalized, Colombia’s foreign minister said Saturday.
Despite an armed government blockade, Guaido has said that international aid for the country, reeling from a long political and economic crisis, would enter.
Maduro had ordered the blockade of the international bridge connecting the country to the Colombian city of Cucuta earlier this month ahead of U.S. humanitarian aid arriving in Colombia a week ago. Maduro also closed the Venezuela-Brazil border Thursday, citing the planned delivery of foreign aid against his wishes.
While the country’s poverty has soared to record levels with a lack of medicine and food, Maduro denies the humanitarian crisis exists and says the U.S. aid efforts are part of a plot to bring down his government.
Maduro, speaking at a rally in the capital of Caracas, severed diplomatic relations with Colombia, and threatened the United States with “the strength of the Venezuelan armed forces.”
U.S. Vice President Pence will meet with Guaido on Monday in Bogota, during Pence’s visit to Colombia, a White House official said Saturday, according CNN.
“We denounce Maduro’s refusal to let humanitarian assistance reach #Venezuela,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo posted on Twitter. “What kind of a sick tyrant stops food from getting to hungry people? The images of burning trucks filled with aid are sickening.”
On Friday, at least two people died when troops loyal to Maduro opened fire on citizens attempting to keep Venezuela’s southern border with Brazil open to humanitarian aid this weekend.
Guaido took to Twitter to encourage Venezuelans to protest Maduro’s blockade of humanitarian aid.
“We call on everyone to go out into the streets on a massive scale throughout the country, to demonstrate peacefully in the barracks to demand # FANB [Venezuelan armed forces] to let humanitarian aid go through,” Guaido tweeted Saturday. “Let’s make today the cry of an entire people that wants life, future and freedom.”