Colombia will not allow Venezuela border to be rebel sanctuary: Duque

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia will not allow its border with Venezuela to become a sanctuary for the leftist ELN rebel group, President Ivan Duque said on Friday, after local media published documents said to show Venezuela has given weapons to the group.

Colombia’s President Ivan Duque speaks at a news conference during a visit by U.S. Secretary of State at a warehouse where international humanitarian aid for Venezuela is being stored, near La Unidad cross-border bridge between Colombia and Venezuela in Cucuta, Colombia April 14, 2019. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez 

Local media Red+ Noticias, which published the documents late on Thursday, said they are signed by Venezuelan military leaders and reference orders from President Nicolas Maduro that the armed forces treat the National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels as their allies and avoid targeting them.

Another document purportedly shows the Venezuelan military gave explosives to the guerrillas, who have fought the Colombian government for more than five decades.

Reuters could not independently verify the content of the documents, one of which Red+ said was signed by Remigio Ceballos, the commander of the Venezuelan armed forces.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry and Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“We won’t allow the border to become a sanctuary for the ELN,” Duque told journalists, adding the military will be on high alert to prevent the ELN from receiving any weapons or aid from Venezuela.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” he said of the report. “The ELN’s top leadership are in Venezuelan territory. (Maduro) has been giving them arms, money and help for several years.”

Maduro’s help is motivating the ELN to forcibly recruit children and commit crimes along the two countries’ border, Duque added.

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido said on Twitter he spoke to Duque about the ELN and pledged lawmakers would collaborate with Colombia to stop attacks.

“It is time for our armed forces to exercise the sovereignty of our nation and fight this irregular occupation of our territory,” said Guaido, who invoked the constitution in January to assume an interim presidency, denouncing Maduro’s re-election as illegitimate.

Meanwhile, Venezuela’s foreign minister Jorge Arreaza tweeted that Duque is “lying in a scandalously compulsive manner to evade his responsibilities and distract public opinion” and that the Colombian president should “put on his pants and fulfill his obligations”.

The 2,000-strong ELN is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union. It regularly bombs oil pipelines and claimed responsibility for a January attack on Bogota’s police academy that killed more than 20 people.

The porous 2,200-km (1,370-mile) border is a hub for smuggling and the transit of Venezuelan migrants fleeing hyperinflation and their country’s political crisis.

Incidents involving Venezuelan soldiers crossing the border without permission are common.

Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb and Nelson Bocanegra; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and James Dalgleish