UPDATE 3-Venezuela aid convoy moves to Colombia border, troops fire tear gas

(Recasts with aid convoy, details on protests)

CUCUTA, Colombia/URENA, Venezuela, Feb 23 (Reuters) - V enezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido gave a personal send off to an aid caravan from the Colombian city of Cucuta toward the border between the two countries on Saturday, pledging to bring food and medicine to a hungry population despite President Nicolas Maduro's resistance.

Guaido, who most Western nations recognize as Venezuela's legitimate leader, briefly boarded one of a dozen trucks carrying U.S.-backed humanitarian aid toward Venezuela's borders.

Venezuelan troops just across the border fired tear gas at opposition leaders seeking to receive the aid, a Reuters witness said. Demonstrators in barricaded streets burned a bus and hurled stones at security forces to demand that Maduro allow aid into the country.

"The humanitarian aid is definitely on its way to Venezuela, in a peaceful manner, to save lives right now," Guaido said in a news conference in Cucuta flanked by three Latin American presidents, including Colombia's Ivan Duque.

A humanitarian aid truck also crossed the Brazilian border, an opposition leader in Caracas said. A Reuters witness said that while the truck was on Venezuelan soil, it had not passed through the customs checkpoint.

In the town of San Antonio on the Colombian border, troops repelled a group of activists including opposition legislators who had gathered on the other side of a bridge linking the two countries, according to a Reuters witness.

In the nearby town of Urena, angry protesters clashed with security forces, barricading streets with burning tires. One group torched a military uniform in a symbolic protest against the armed forces, which have stood by Maduro despite growing international isolation.

Colombia's migration authority said four Venezuelan soldiers defected on Saturday morning.

A social media video showed the troops driving armored vehicles across a bridge linking the two countries, knocking over metal barricades in the process, and then jumping out of the vehicles and running to the Colombian side.

"What we did today, we did for our families, for the Venezuelan people," said one of the four men in a video televised by a Colombian news program, which did not identify them. "We are not terrorists."

Colombian television also showed images of what it said was a Venezuelan army major recognizing Guaido as president, although it did not identify him. Reuters could not immediately confirm his identity.

EMBARRASS THE MILITARY

Leaders of Venezuela's ruling Socialist Party call the aid effort a veiled invasion backed by Washington, and insist that the United States should instead help Venezuela by lifting crippling financial and oil sector sanctions. Maduro blames the country's dire situation on U.S. sanctions that have blocked funds and hobbled the OPEC member's oil industry.

While the need for basic food and medicines is desperate, Venezuela's opposition also hopes the operation will embarrass military officers who continue to support Maduro.

Guaido defied court orders not to leave Venezuela when he traveled on Friday to Cucuta, where aid from the U.S. and Colombian governments is stockpiled in warehouses.

U.S. President Donald Trump's national security adviser John Bolton canceled plans to travel to South Korea to prepare for a summit addressing North Korea's nuclear program in order to focus instead on events unfolding in Venezuela, his spokesman said on Friday.

"To Maduro's military cronies attacking civilians at the Brazilian border - the world is watching and the perpetrators will face justice," Bolton wrote on Twitter. "The Venezuelan military should protect civilians, not shoot them."

Trucks driven by Venezuelan volunteers were heading toward the border, Colombia's government said, adding that their contents will be unloaded and transported by "human chains" that have formed on the road that leads toward Venezuela.

Concerns about the potential for violence flared on Friday when the Venezuelan army opened fire in an village near the Brazilian border after indigenous leaders attempted to prevent them from advancing, killing a woman and her husband.

The U.S. government condemned the killings.

The U.S. envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, who traveled to Cucuta on Friday, called them "a crime and a disgrace," while the U.S. State Department said "egregious violation of human rights by Maduro and those who are following his orders will not go unpunished." (Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Additional reporting by Helen Murphy and Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota, Anthony Boadle in Brasilia; Editing by Daniel Flynn Daniel Wallis and Grant McCool)

02/23/2019 11:45

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