September 16, 2015 / 5:23 AM / in 3 years

Colombia's president says Venezuela gestures could solve border spat

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.

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos (L) greets a Wayuu indigenous woman during a visit to Paraguachon border with Venezuela, in Colombia, September 15, 2015, in this handout photo provided by Colombian Presidency. REUTERS/Efrain Herrera/Colombian Presidency/Handout via Reuters

Maduro said later he was open to a meeting, but added in a four-hour televised broadcast that he had the sense his Colombian counterpart did not want to meet.

The neighboring countries have been at odds in the past weeks since Maduro’s government closed several major border crossings and deported 1,400 Colombians as part of an alleged anti-contraband operation.

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.”

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.

On Tuesday, he ordered a state of exception in several other border municipalities, without specifying whether he would also close crossings there, to launch what he calls a crackdown on smuggling and crime.

His political opponents say he is using Colombians as scapegoats to distract from Venezuela’s economic crisis and is seeking to whip up nationalist fervor ahead of December parliamentary elections.

Colombia has also claimed three Venezuelan military airplanes violated its airspace over the weekend. Venezuela has denied the incident.

Reporting by Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta in Bogota and Alexandra Ulmer in Caracas; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Richard Pullin

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