clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Venezuela sends home Colombians

CASIGUA EL CUBO, Venezuela (AP) -- Venezuela repatriated more than 1,000 people on Saturday who had fled Colombia's paramilitary death squads in a mass exodus that President Hugo Chavez called "a mini-Kosovo."

Some 1,500 Colombians remained in tents and other shelters in the sweltering Venezuelan border town of Casigua el Cubo and were expected to be sent back to their homeland on Sunday.The Colombians, many of whom work in coca fields growing the raw material for cocaine, fled the eastern Colombian town of La Gabarra after paramilitary squads staged an offensive there last week.

Most arrived by foot and by canoe, braving swamps, rugged terrain, sweltering heat and the presence armed gangs.

"We saw children arriving exhausted and dehydrated," Gov. Francisco Arias Cardenas of Zulia state told The Associated Press.

Though no official figures are available in Colombia, those fleeing said the death squads have killed scores of civilians since beginning their offensive May 29. On Friday, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jose Vicente Rangel put the number of dead at 80.

Most of the refugees work in La Gabarra but have homes in the nearby city of Cucuta. They fled to Venezuela when the roads to Cucuta were blocked by the paramilitaries.

Most of the civilian population of La Gabarra has fled as leftist guerrillas and paramilitary groups fight each other for control of the coca-growing region.

On Friday, the Colombian army also took up positions in the town.

"The fear is palpable because the presence of the paramilitaries is very strong," said Rev. Jose Molina, a Catholic priest in the nearby Colombian town of Tibu.

Few permanent residents of La Gabarra entered Venezuela because they did not want their names to appear on any official registry and instead fled to nearby towns in Colombia, said Luis Ernesto Castro, a local human rights worker.

As in much of Colombia, survival in La Gabarra usually means having to choose sides between the warring forces.

"If they don't accuse you of being paramilitary, then they'll say you're a guerrilla. One is caught in the middle," said Jaime Perez, 34.