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Venezuela keeps border with Colombia closed in trade, migration dispute

Venezuela keeps border with Colombia closed in trade, migration dispute
Venezuelan troops patrol a checkpoint in San Antonio, Tachira state, which is near the border with Colombia, on Sunday. (George Castellanos / AFP/Getty Images)

Venezuela on Monday announced a 60-day extension of its partial closure of the border with Colombia after President Nicolas Maduro said his country was under attack by neighboring paramilitary groups, drug traffickers and black marketeers.

The move came after the governor of Tachira state in western Venezuela said more than 1,000 undocumented Colombians had been expelled over the weekend for suspected black market activities. The expulsions followed an incident Wednesday in which unknown gunmen wounded three National Guard members at an outpost near the border.

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Maduro blamed the violence on Colombian paramilitary groups involved in smuggling.

The two countries have been at odds over trans-border trade. Colombians have taken advantage of Venezuela's government-subsidized economy to smuggle cheaper goods across the border for sale. That, in turn, has exacerbated severe shortages of basic food and household items in Venezuela.

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As much as 10% of the gasoline refined in Venezuela is estimated to be sold in Colombia, Brazil and other nations.

In an interview with state-owned television, Maduro also said Venezuela has been inundated by more than 100,000 Colombians in recent months, comparing it with mass migrations underway in the Middle East.

In the past, Colombians have migrated to Venezuela in search of work in oil-related industries. But Venezuela's economy has been struggling of late, raising questions as to whether so many Colombians would migrate there -- and if so, why.

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Speaking at an event in Bucaramanga on Saturday, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos disputed Maduro's claims and said the closing of the border and mass expulsions "have no logic."

On Monday, the Santos government issued a statement saying the two nations' foreign ministers will meet Wednesday at an undisclosed location in an effort to resolve the dispute.

Also in the statement, the Colombian government expressed its "concern" over the expulsions and reported rough treatment of the expelled Colombians at the hands of Venezuelan authorities.

"Dialogue and diplomacy, especially in moments like these, is the most responsible and recommendable way to address the situation of our citizens," the Colombian statement said.

In a separate statement, Colombia's Interior Ministry said officials at the border city of Cucuta had helped 751 Colombians expelled from Venezuela in recent days, of whom 514 had been placed in temporary shelters.

Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo suggested that Colombians living in Venezuela are being used as pawns in the Venezuelan political campaign before National Assembly elections in December.

Special correspondents Mogollon and Kraul reported from Caracas and Los Angeles, respectively.

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