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Venezuela closes last border crossing with Colombia as leaders urge talks

By Andrew V. Pestano
Venezuela closes last border crossing with Colombia as leaders urge talks
A "gas station" in Cucuta, Colombia, bordering Venezuela. Gasoline is often smuggled across the border from Venezuela where it is cheaper than water and sold on the Colombian streets. File Photo by Celine Massa/Flickr

CARACAS, Venezuela, Sept. 8 (UPI) -- Venezuela closed its last major crossing with Colombia on Monday as the country's presidents expressed the desire to enter discussions on the border crisis.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced he was closing the Paraguachón border crossing and deploying 3,000 Bolivarian National Armed Force troops to the border near Venezuela's second-largest city, Maracaibo, in the country's Zulia state, which connects with northern Colombia.

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"I have decided to cease the Paraguachón border crossing in the Zulia state," Maduro said in a televised address Monday.

Maduro also declared a state of emergency in the municipalities of Guajira, Mara and Almirante Padilla, saying they are "subjected to relentless attacks by rebel groups, paramilitaries, criminals."

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The Venezuelan government is conducting a border-wide crackdown on smugglers and criminal gangs after three soldiers were injured by smugglers in an attack on Aug. 19. Maduro has closed six border crossings since the attack, which has escalated tensions with Colombia.

More than 1,000 Colombians have been deported and about 15,000 have fled Venezuela in fear of deportation, the United Nations says.

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Venezuela and Colombia's 1,400-mile border is porous and highly unregulated. The border is often used by smugglers to purchase heavily subsidized goods in Venezuela to resell in Colombia for a profit.

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Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said he accepted Uruguay's offer to mediate negotiations with the Venezuelan president amid the tense border crisis.

"I received a telephone call last week from the president of Uruguay, Tabare Vazquez, who offered his good offices to facilitate the dialogue with Venezuela," Santos said Monday. "I accepted his offer and told him I was even prepared for this meeting to be in Montevideo if he thought it necessary."

Maduro asserted that he is prepared to meet with Santos as to "restore relations of dialogue."

"Accept my willingness to talk to you tomorrow, if you want," Maduro said in a message directed to Santos during a televised address on Monday in Caracas. "If you call me now at the end of this program, we will see each other tomorrow at the time you say, wherever you say."

"Let us restore relations of dialogue, respect of cohabitation, of coexistence," Maduro added.

The Democratic Unity Roundtable 29-member leading political opposition coalition in Venezuela has accused Maduro's government of using August's smuggler attack for political benefits ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for Dec. 6, as a way to distract Venezuelans from the country's security issues and worsening economic crisis.

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