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Thousands of Venezuelans flee to Colombia amid military operations

ARAUQUITA MUNICIPALITY, Colombia (Reuters) - Thousands of Venezuelans have fled to Colombia from their homes in the border province of Apure amid military operations there, the Colombian government and some of those displaced said.

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Venezuela has said its military is fighting Colombian armed groups in rural areas and has its population’s support.

“When the bombs were falling I felt so nervous,” said Niomar Diaz, 26, who arrived in Colombia by canoe. “In one house a grandfather died, an 8-year-old boy died, a 9-year-old girl and her mom. The situation was terrible.”

Diaz said the Venezuelan military was abusive and his family and several neighbors chose to flee. Reuters could not independently verify his account of the deaths or the alleged abuse.

More than 3,200 people in 780 families make up the group, which began arriving in the Colombian municipality of Arauquita on Monday because of the military operations, Colombia’s migration agency said in a statement on Wednesday.

The border is currently closed due to COVID-19.

“The foreigners are in eight shelters in Arauquita municipality and the national government, the governor of Arauca and the international community are making efforts to provide them with assistance,” the agency said.

Colombia’s foreign ministry on Twitter this week expressed worry over the situation and urged the international community to contribute help for the displaced.

Venezuela’s foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza, rejected those comments in his own tweet late on Wednesday.

The operations have been conducted against illegal camps of Colombian armed groups to protect civilians, a statement shared by Arreaza said, and two Venezuelan soldiers have been killed.

“Any attempt to violate the territorial integrity of Venezuela will have a forceful reaction,” he said.

Colombia will increase military and police presence in the area, Defense Minister Diego Molano said on Twitter on Wednesday.

Colombia’s government has vehemently criticized what it characterizes as the Venezuelan government’s protection of Colombian rebels and crime gangs. Venezuela has denied protecting such groups.

Colombia said last month it would grant 10-year protected status to some 1.7 million Venezuelans.

Reporting by Jhon Freddy Hinestroza in Arauquita, additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta and Sarah Kinosian; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Steve Orlofsky

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