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ROME (Reuters) - Pope Francis said on Sunday a meeting between Colombian and Venezuelan bishops was a clear sign of hope in a border dispute that has seen some 16,000 Colombians leave their adopted home.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro closed several border crossings and deported 1,300 Colombians last month in what he called a crackdown on smuggling and crime on the frontier.
"The bishops of Venezuela and Colombia have met in recent days to analyze together the painful situation that has sprung up on the border between the two countries," the Argentine pontiff said in Spanish, switching from his customary Italian as he spoke to crowds in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican after his regular Angelus address.
"In this meeting I see a clear sign of hope."
Francis, the first non-European pope for 1,300 years, invited people to pray for the situation, two days after Brazil's and Argentina's foreign ministers visited Bogota in a bid to get the two sides talking.
According to the United Nations, 15,000 people have crossed the border voluntarily during the crackdown, many carrying their possessions on their backs.
Maduro says he is protecting his country from criminals who smuggle everything from gasoline to flour across the border, but his political opponents say he is using Colombians as scapegoats to distract from Venezuela's economic crisis.
Reporting by Isla Binnie; Editing by Clelia Oziel