September 17, 2015 / 12:26 AM / 4 years ago

Colombia, Venezuela leaders to meet Monday over border dispute

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos (L) greets supporters during a visit to Paraguachon border with Venezuela, in Colombia, September 15, 2015, in this handout photo provided by Colombian Presidency. REUTERS/Efrain Herrera/Colombian Presidency/Handout via Reuters.

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said on Wednesday that he will meet his Colombian counterpart, Juan Manuel Santos, next week in Ecuador to discuss a border dispute that has soured relations between the South American neighbors.

Maduro’s socialist government has closed several major border crossings in recent weeks and deported more than 1,500 Colombians as part of what authorities have called a crackdown on contraband and crime.

More than 16,000 Colombians have fled Venezuela since the crackdown began, according to the United Nations. Many have said they were beaten before wading rivers and crossing bridges with their belongings on their backs, sparking an international outcry and condemnation from Bogota.

The center-right Santos and Maduro, who frequently accuses Colombian rightists of seeking to topple him, have not met since the border dispute began.

“We achieved it ... The meeting will be next Monday in Quito,” Maduro announced at an event marking the resumption of Venezuela’s school year.

“I’m ready. I have my pencil to sign a peace deal,” he said.

Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin confirmed the meeting and said the presidents of Ecuador and Uruguay would also attend.

Maduro has said the border closures are aimed at protecting the OPEC country from criminals who smuggle subsidized goods, ranging from gasoline to flour, into Colombia. His political opponents have accused him of using Colombians as scapegoats to distract from Venezuela’s economic crisis, while also seeking to whip up nationalist sentiment ahead of December parliamentary elections.

Reporting by Corina Pons; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer and Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Tom Brown

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