CARTAGENA, Colombia, Feb 3 (Reuters) – Venezuela is moving troops to the border with Colombia with technical assistance from Russia and Iran, Colombia’s Defense Minister Diego Molano said on Thursday, calling the possible deployment “foreign interference.”
Molano, citing intelligence sources, said troop movements were registered in Venezuela opposite Colombia’s Arauca province, the scene of fierce fighting between guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (ELN) and FARC dissidents for control of the drugs trade.
Venezuela’s government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“We know that men and units of the FANB have been mobilized towards the border with technical assistance from Russia … and Iran,” Molano said at an anti-drugs conference in Colombia’s Caribbean city of Cartagena. FANB is the Spanish acronym of Venezuela’s National Bolivarian Armed Forces.
Colombia’s human rights ombudsman has reported that clashes between the illegal armed groups in Arauca left 66 dead and 1,200 displaced peoples in January alone.
Fighting between the groups over control of drug trafficking and other illicit economies began in Venezuela’s Apure state, and spread to Colombia, Molano said.
The ELN has teamed up with the Segunda Marquetalia, a faction of the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who reject a 2016 peace deal with the government, to fight another FARC dissident group, he added.
The violence in Arauca, a key area for oil production and cattle rearing, continues despite orders from Colombia’s President Ivan Duque in early January for more troops to be deployed there to take control of the territory and end the bloodshed.
The Colombian government accuses Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro of sheltering both FARC dissidents and the ELN, something he has repeatedly denied.
Last year Maduro said his government would combat all manner of illegal armed group originating from Colombia in Venezuelan territory during 2022.
(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta in Cartagena; Additional reporting by Vivian Sequera in Caracas; Writing by Oliver Griffin; Editing by Richard Chang)