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BREAKING NEWS

U.S. sends aid to Colombia-Venezuela border; Maduro rejects help

U.S. sends aid to Colombia-Venezuela border; Maduro rejects help
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LUISA GONZALEZ(Reuters)
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By Lesley Wroughton and Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has sent food and medicine to Colombia's border with Venezuela, U.S. officials said on Tuesday, although it is still unclear how the aid will get past the objections of President Nicolas Maduro, who has blocked shipments in the past.

One official with knowledge of the plans, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the aid will be prepositioned at the main Colombian-Venezuelan border crossing at Cucuta.

The U.S. officials said trucks carrying the aid, including high-protein foods, would arrive in Cucuta this week at the request of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who last month declared himself to be the South American nation's interim president.

Opposition lawmaker Miguel Pizarro told reporters in Caracas on Tuesday that Guaido's team would communicate the next steps on shipping the aid once it was in place.

Shipments were also coming from Venezuelan companies abroad, Colombia, Canada and Germany. Aid groups have asked authorities to allow the aid in, said Caritas, a Catholic aid group.

Prepositioning aid in warehouses or in truck convoys at border posts for weeks, or sometimes months, is common while officials negotiate safe passage.

Franklin Graham, chief executive of relief group Samaritan's Purse and the son of renowned Christian evangelist Billy Graham, said until humanitarian groups had access inside Venezuela, most aid likely would remain at the border.

"I don’t know how they’re going to do that, until the political situation changes,” said Graham, referring to the dilemma of how to get the aid inside Venezuela.

Samaritan's Purse has operated for the past three years in Cucuta, where food, medicine and backpacks are given to Venezuelans heading on foot into Colombia. The group also has managed to get a small amount of aid inside the country, which Graham called "a drop in the bucket" compared to what is needed.

"The government of Venezuela needs to open the borders, that's it: Open the borders and let food convoys come into your country, open up your airports and let food flights fly in," said Graham, who said he spoke to U.S. President Donald Trump about the situation in December.

FLOW OF MIGRANTS

Pressure is growing on Maduro to step down after more than a dozen European Union nations, including Britain, Germany and France, on Monday joined the United States, Canada and a group of Latin American countries in recognising Guaido as Venezuela's legitimate leader.

However Russia, China and Turkey continue to back Maduro, accusing Western nations of meddling in Venezuela's internal affairs.

The 35-year-old Guaido, the head of Venezuela's National Assembly, has galvanized the opposition with a hopeful message. He has repeatedly called on Venezuela's military, which has remained loyal to Maduro, to support a transition to democracy.

The United States could attempt to seek the approval of the United Nations Security Council to deliver aid without Maduro's cooperation, but Russia would likely block such a move.

So far, Maduro has rejected foreign aid. "We are not beggars. You want to humiliate Venezuela, and I will not let our people be humiliated," he said on Monday.

Maduro's government, overseeing an economic collapse that has prompted 3 million Venezuelans to flee the country, lashed out at the EU nations for recognising Guaido, accusing them of submitting to a U.S. "strategy to overthrow the legitimate government."

The Cucuta crossing from Venezuela appeared to be quiet on Tuesday. The largest city along the frontier, Cucuta has borne the brunt of the arriving migrants. Thousands of people cross the pedestrian bridge daily lugging suitcases and plastic bags.

"Maduro doesn't want help," said Carolina Rozo, 20, as she crossed the bridge with a wheeled metal shopping cart. "He wants us to be poor. We have to come to buy food because we cannot even get cooking oil and eggs in Venezuela."

Those who settle in Cucuta are often Venezuela's poorest.

Others walk and bus hundreds of kilometres to other cities in Colombia, or follow thousands of others to Brazil, Peru, Chile and Argentina.

With Maduro in control of Venezuela's military and all the territory, getting aid in will be hard, said Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, who has led U.S. government responses to international disasters.

"If the goal here is to alleviate suffering, then you do need to be smart about dealing with the power structure that is in place," Konyndyk said.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Additional reporting by Michelle Nicols at the United Nations, Helen Murphy in Bogota, Mayela Armas in Caracas and Anggy Polanco and Nelson Bocanegra in Cucuta; Editing by Paul Simao)

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