Venezuelan soldiers killed civilians, refugees who fled to Colombia say

(Reuters) – Venezuelans fleeing to Colombia to escape clashes between the Venezuelan military and irregular armed groups have accused soldiers of abuses, including killing civilians.

The flow of refugees, estimated at 4,000 by an official in Colombia’s Arauquita Municipality, began on Sunday after Venezuela’s National Bolivarian Armed Forces (FANB) launched an offensive against illegal armed groups in La Victoria, a Venezuelan town across the Arauca River from Arauquita.

Venezuela said it is investigating accusations that members of its military committed abuses, including detaining and killing civilians, as well as looting and burning homes.

“They raided our house and took everything from us. When they arrived they broke everything, the doors; they entered and took everything I had in the house, the workshop,” mechanic Jose Castillo, who arrived in Colombia with his pregnant wife and 12-year-old daughter on Friday, told Reuters.

“I couldn’t stay because they are killing people. They killed some neighbors and dressed them in Venezuelan army uniforms to pass them off as guerrillas,” Castillo said.

Reuters could not independently verify Castillo’s accusations, or those of other displaced Venezuelans who showed photos on their cell phones of dead people wearing camouflage uniforms with weapons next to their hands.

Dissidents of the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who reject a 2016 peace deal with the Colombian government, are the targets of the military operations, according to the fleeing civilians.

But the victims were residents of La Victoria and its surroundings, they said.

Venezuela Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez told a press conference that two Venezuelan soldiers were killed in clashes along with six irregular fighters whom he called terrorists.

Slideshow ( 5 images )
A further 39 have been captured, he added in a statement.

“We must expel any group of any ideology, of any foreign nationality,” Padrino said. “We are obliged to expel them, whatever they are called.”

The accusations levied at Venezuela’s military do not reflect its ethics, Padrino said.

Venezuelan armed forces are obliged to defend the country from irregular groups, he said, adding human rights would be respected and the events would be investigated.

In a separate statement, Venezuela’s defense ministry accused the Colombian government and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency of supporting the foreign combatants.

Colombia’s government and the CIA were not immediately available to comment.

Venezuela’s chief prosecutor Tarek Saab wrote in a series of Twitter messages that Venezuela is investigating events in La Victoria, to see if rights were violated.

Colombian President Ivan Duque has accused the government of his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro of sheltering FARC dissidents and members of the National Liberation Army (ELN), something the government in Caracas denies.