National Guard fires tear gas amid Venezuela border tension

CUCUTA, Colombia - Venezuela's National Guard fired tear gas on opposition activists at a barricaded border bridge to Colombia on Saturday, and two protesters were killed near the border in Brazil, as the opposition tried to execute a high-risk plan to deliver humanitarian aid over the obstinate refusal of President Nicolas Maduro.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido pulled himself onto a semitruck and shook hands with its driver as he and Colombian President Ivan Duque gave a ceremonial send-off to an aid convoy looking to transport nearly 200 metric tons of mostly U.S.-supplied emergency food and medical supplies from the Colombian border city of Cucuta.

"Our call to the armed forces couldn't be clearer: put yourself on the right side of history," he said in an appeal to troops constituting Maduro's last-remaining major plank of support in a country ravaged by hyperinflation and widespread shortages.

Amid the aid push, Maduro struck back, breaking diplomatic relations with Colombia, whose government he accuses of serving as a staging ground for a U.S.-led effort to oust him from power.

"My patience has run out," Maduro said, speaking at a rally of red-shirted supporters in Caracas and giving Colombian diplomats 24 hours to leave the country.

The opposition is calling on masses of Venezuelans to form a "humanitarian avalanche" to escort the trucks across several border bridges.

But clashes started at dawn in the Venezuelan border town of Urena, when residents began removing yellow metal barricades and barbed wire blocking the Francisco de Paula Santander bridge. Venezuela's National Guard responded forcefully, firing tear gas and buckshot on the protesters who demanded that the aid pass through.

Some of the protesters were masked youth who threw rocks and later commandeered a city bus and set it afire. At least two dozen people were injured in the disturbances, according to local health officials in Urena.

The potentially volatile moment for both Venezuela's government and opposition comes exactly one month after Guaido, a 35-year-old lawmaker, declared himself interim president based on a controversial reading of the constitution before a sea of cheering supporters. While he has earned popular backing and recognition from more than 50 nations, he has not sealed the support of the military, whose loyalty to Maduro is crucial.

"We're tired. There's no work, nothing," Andreina Montanez, 31, said as she sat on a curb recovering from the sting of tear gas used to disperse the crowd.

The single mom said she lost her job as a seamstress in December and had to console her 10-year-old daughter's fears that she would be left orphaned when she decided to join Saturday's protest.

"I told her I had to go out on the streets because there's no bread," she said. "But still, these soldiers are scary. It's like they're hunting us."

At the Simon Bolivar bridge, a group of aid volunteers in blue vests calmly walked up to a police line and shook officers' hands, appealing for them to join their fight.

But the goodwill was fleeting and a few hours later the volunteers were driven back with tear gas, triggering a chaotic stampede.

At the same post, at least 12 members of the National Guard deserted the force and took refuge inside Colombia, according to migration officials.

A video provided by Colombian authorities shows three of the men wading through a crowd with their assault rifles and pistols held above their heads in a sign of surrender. The young soldiers were then ordered to lie face down on the ground as migration officials urged angry onlookers to keep a safe distance.

"I've spent days thinking about this," said one of the soldiers, whose identity was not immediately known. He called on his comrades to join him: "There is a lot of discontent inside the forces, but also lots of fear."

Guaido, who has offered amnesty to soldiers who join the opposition's fight, applauded their bravery, saying it was a sign that support for Maduro was crumbling. Later, he greeted five of the military members, who in turn offered a salute, calling the opposition leader Venezuela's "constitutional president" and their commander in chief.

"They aren't deserters," Guaido said. "They've decided to put themselves on the side of the people and the constitution.....The arrival of liberty and democracy to Venezuela can't be detained."

International leaders including U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres are appealing for the sides to avoid violence.

But at least two people were killed and another 18 injured in the town of Santa Elena de Uairen, near the border with Brazil, according to local health officials. The town was also the site of deadly disturbances a day earlier when members of the indigenous Pemon tribe clashed with security forces.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said the military would "never have orders to fire on the civilian population" and likened the aid push to a media spectacle.

"We can only hope that sanity and good sense prevail in Cucuta, in Colombia, and that it will remain as a big show, a big party, and that they don't try to open the doors to a military intervention," he said Friday at U.N. headquarters in New York.

The push comes on the heels of a giant concert organized by British billionaire Richard Branson aimed at pressuring Maduro to accept the aid. Tens of thousands of Venezuelans gathered in a field to hear pop stars like Juanes sing beneath a scorching sun. Guaido made a surprise appearance toward the end.

The opposition planned to hold three simultaneous aid pushes on Saturday. Aside from the events in Colombia, they also hope to get humanitarian assistance delivered by sea and through Venezuela's remote border with Brazil, which the government of Maduro has ordered closed.

Amid the sometimes-chaotic and hard-to-verify flow of information, opposition lawmakers and Guaido said the first shipment of humanitarian aid had crossed into Venezuela from Brazil — although reports from the ground revealed that two trucks carrying the aid had only inched up to the border itself.

Dueling demonstrations also took place in the capital. Government opponents, one of them dressed like Captain America in a nod to the Trump administration's prominent role cornering Maduro, headed toward an air base. With the opposition mostly mobilized along the border, a much larger mass of red-shirted government supporters, some of them on motorcycles, filed downtown toward the presidential palace.

Venezuela's military has served as the traditional arbiter of political disputes in the South American country, and in recent weeks, top leaders have pledged their unwavering loyalty to Maduro. However, many believe that lower-ranking troops who suffer from the same hardships as many other Venezuelans may be more inclined to now let the aid enter.

Opposition leaders are pushing forward in belief that whether Maduro lets the aid in or not, he will come out weakened. They also contend that if the military does allow the food and medical gear to pass, it will signify troops are now loyal to Guaido.

Analysts warn that there may be no clear victor and humanitarian groups have criticized the opposition as using the aid as a political weapon.

"I don't know that anyone can give a timeline of when the dam might break, and it's quite possible that it won't," said Eric Farnsworth of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society, a Washington-based think tank.

Fearful of what they might encounter, some Venezuelans in Cucuta said they planned to stay away from the border crossings, while others said they'd face the risks and go.

"For my son, I'd risk everything," said Oscar Herrera, 25, a Venezuelan man who took an 18-hour bus ride to Colombia to buy his infant medicine for a skin irritation earlier this week.

Hernan Parcia, 32, a father of three, said he planned to go with his entire family.

"I'm pained by what's happening to my country," he said. "They can count on me."

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.