Colombia says increasing number of Venezuelans involved in ELN attacks

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia on Thursday said an increasing number of Venezuelans were taking part in attacks by Marxist ELN rebels and in criminal activity, as hundreds of thousands of migrants flee over the border to escape a humanitarian crisis at home.

FILE PHOTO: Colombian Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas talks during an interview with Reuters in Bogota, Colombia, May 18, 2016. REUTERS/John Vizcaino/File Photo

Colombian Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said he had expressed concern to his Venezuelan counterpart General Vladimir Padrino in a telephone conversation, and that they had agreed to meet to coordinate security plans at the border.

Villegas said Venezuelans had collaborated with the National Liberation Army (ELN) in attacks in Colombia and been involved in killings and robberies.

“The number of Venezuelans who have participated in these ELN actions is growing,” Villegas told reporters in the western city of Pereira, in broadcast comments.

“I also told General Padrino about our concern over the growing participation of Venezuelan citizens in common and organized crime.”

Colombia, Brazil and other Latin American nations are grappling with a growing migrant crisis, as thousands of Venezuelans seek to escape economic hardship, hyperinflation and food shortages in the oil-rich nation.

Last week, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said he would institute stricter migration controls, temporarily suspend new daily entry cards, and deploy new security personnel, including more soldiers, along the 2,219 km (1,379-mile) shared frontier.

Villegas said intelligence agents in Colombia had found that an attack by the ELN in late January, which killed six police officers and injured 40, was planned in Venezuela.

He also said that two Venezuelan members of the ELN died over the weekend, when a device intended to destroy a section of highway exploded.

Santos on Wednesday said Colombia needs international aid to cope with the situation. The number of Venezuelans living in Colombia increased 62 percent to more than 550,000 in the second half of 2017, according to the migration authority.

Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Helen Murphy, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien