Venezuela said Thursday a group of its soldiers had retreated from a border camp, after officials in Bogota accused the troops of straying into Colombian territory.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos confirmed the withdrawal after speaking with his Venezuelan counterpart, Nicolas Maduro.
“He has assured me he has ordered the withdrawal of troops from Colombian territory,” Santos said during a televised address.
The previous day, more than 60 soldiers pulled back from an encampment near the Arauca river, which demarcates much of the Venezuela/Colombia border.
According to Colombian media, the soldiers arrived on Sunday, and set up camp on land owned by local farmers. Santos described the alleged incursion as “totally unacceptable,” though Venezuela is yet to confirm whether the troops were on Colombian soil.
According to Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez, the troops may have technically been in Venezuelan territory. She said the misunderstanding might have been caused after recent heavy rains potentially redirected the Arauca River. The river serves as a demarcation line for much of the border, but is susceptible to flooding.
“In this particular area, the river … is constantly changing as a result of flooding. This has happened in the past,” she said.
Rodriguez also condemned “all versions [of the story] … that present a distorted view of the incident”.
The incident was first made public by Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper, shortly before Santos announced the troops’ withdrawal.
The dispute is the latest in a series of border issues in recent years. The porous, rugged border region has long been a cause of tension between the two neighbours, and has repeatedly been closed since 2015.
Troops Clash with AGC
On Wednesday, state media in Caracas reported security forces clashed with Colombian paramilitaries in the Venezuelan border state of Tachira.
At least eight paramilitaries were killed in the six hour fire fight, while two Venezuelan soldiers were reported injured. The camp was allegedly used as a base for over 100 paramilitaries involved in extortion, and arms smuggling. Venezuelan officials stated troops recovered military grade weapons from the camp, including grenade launchers and heavy machine guns.
State media outlet AVN reported the paramilitaries had been identified as members of the right-wing extremist group, the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia. The group is largely comprised of former members of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, which was responsible for the 1997 Mapiripan Massacre. The massacre left at least 30 Colombians dead, with most being dismembered or disembowelled with machetes and chainsaws.
Venezuela rejects media campaigns aimed at hindering relations with Colombia
Caracas, 24 Mar. AVN.- Venezuela issued an official statement on Thursday rejecting media campaigns aimed at distorting the incidents on the border with Colombia, actions that seek to hinder relations between the two countries.
The communique, read by Minister of Foreign Affairs, Delcy Rodriguez, states that representatives of Colombia and Venezuela will meet in the coming hours to solve the situation caused during daily patrolling and surveilling activities of Venezuelan authorities in the common area.
The full text follows:
BOLIVARIAN REPUBLIC OF VENEZUELA
MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS
Concerning the events with the Republic of Colombia, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela reports:
Venezuela rejects all versions and news that claim to present a distorted view of the incident that occurred with the Colombian government, due to daily patrolling activities our authorities maintain in Venezuelan territory bordering Colombia.
The Bolivarian National Armed Forces carry out a permanent deployment of surveillance, safety and protection of the border in order to combat the serious threats to the peace and stability of Venezuela represented by Colombian paramilitaries, criminal gangs, transnational crime and particularly drug trafficking and smuggling. Outstanding in this regard are the strong blows to organized crime as well as the dismantling of irregular forces and paramilitary bands.
As for the area located in the Arauca River, vulnerable to the effects of climatological changes, when discussions have arisen from this issue, diplomatic mechanisms –including a diplomatic technical commission of both countries– have been put in place to clear up the coordinates on the boundaries previously established. It is important to note that, in this particular area, the river bed is constantly changing as a result of the river flood. In the past, due to the difficult soil conditions and the characteristics of this water area, differences of interpretation have been presented, which have been addressed and must be addressed through diplomatic channels. Consequently, the respective technical diplomatic teams of both countries will meet in the coming hours.
In the face of the falsehoods aimed at creating confrontation between brother countries, we take this opportunity to repudiate the permanent offenses, threats and economic, diplomatic, political, commercial and financial aggressions of the Colombian oligarchy against Venezuela. We are the victims of ongoing conspiracies and provocations from Colombia and all forms of transnational crime that threaten our country’s right to peace, development and territorial integrity.
The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela reaffirms its unwavering advocacy for peace and respect for the sovereignty of nations, as well as absolute adherence to international law. We are heirs of Simon Bolivar’s Liberation Army, who only crossed our borders to dignify the peoples with the conquest of their independence and freedom.
“Peace will be my port, my glory, my reward, my hope, my happiness and all that is precious in the world.” Letter from Liberator hero Simon Bolivar to Francisco de Paula Santander (1824).
Caracas, March 23, 2017