BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos said on Tuesday there had been important gestures made from Venezuela that could help facilitate a meeting with its President Nicolas Maduro in a bid to end a dispute between the two governments.
The neighboring countries have been at odds in the past weeks since Maduro’s socialist government closed several major border crossings and deported 1,400 Colombians in what he said was a crackdown on smuggling and crime.
As many as 18,000 Colombians have left Venezuela, many claiming they were beaten before wading rivers and crossing bridges with their belongings on their backs.
“I’ve been told there haven’t been any more abuses against our countrymen in the last few days,” Santos said in Paraguachon, northern La Guajira province, where he stretched his hand across the border to greet the Venezuelan National Guard.
Maduro has allowed a so-called humanitarian corridor that permits Colombian children living in Venezuela to cross the border and attend school in Colombia and permitted the unification of families split by the border crisis, Santos said.
“We have taken an important step that would allow a meeting with President Maduro,” said Santos, adding that the meeting must be one in which decisions are made and solutions found.
“I don’t want to meet for a photo.”
Santos’s comments come as the diplomatic spat threatened to heat up after Colombia claimed three Venezuelan military airplanes violated its airspace over the weekend.
Santos ordered an official protest to be made to Venezuela, which has denied the incident.
A meeting between the two leaders could help dispel concerns by nearly half of Colombians who fear the dispute could lead to war, according to a poll by Cifras y Conceptos released on Tuesday.
Maduro says the border closures are aimed at protecting his country from criminals who smuggle everything from gasoline to flour into the neighboring country, but his political opponents say he is using Colombians as scapegoats to distract from Venezuela’s economic crisis.
Reporting by Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Lisa Shumaker