CARACAS (Reuters) - A Venezuelan fighter jet crashed near the Colombian border, killing both pilots aboard, after an “illicit aircraft” likely linked to drug trafficking entered its airspace, the government said on Friday.
"An illicit aircraft entered via the northwestern region on its course to the south towards the border with Colombia, an area where mafias linked to narcotrafficking want to use our territory as a distribution platform for drugs produced in the neighboring country," Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino said in a statement. (goo.gl/L79phE)
A completely destroyed Russian-made Sukhoi-30 jet was located in the border state of Apure, Padrino added in a televised broadcast from the Presidential Palace in Caracas on Friday evening.
Venezuela said it was investigating the case. Colombia had no immediate comment.
A major cocaine producer, Colombia turns out some 300 tonnes annually, some of it smuggled through Venezuela.
Western officials and local opposition politician allege Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government, at the very least, turns a blind eye to the trade.
“Who will investigate the Sukhoi crash? The same people who investigate corruption in the country? Then we all know what will happen,” opposition leader Henrique Capriles said on Twitter.
The latest incident came amid tension between the South American neighbors after Venezuela closed major border crossings in recent weeks and deported over 1,500 Colombians in what it calls a crackdown on crime.
Padrino said he had deployed troops to western towns that have been placed under a state of emergency. He added that the army wants to use ties with China and Russia to boost its capabilities.
Maduro’s foes accuse him of picking fights with Colombia in a ploy to whip up nationalistic sentiment ahead of December parliamentary elections his party is forecast to lose.
The government counters it is trying to protect citizens from smuggling engineered to create shortages and undermine Maduro’s administration.
Venezuela’s price controls create huge discrepancies in the cost of goods, leading Venezuelans and citizens of neighboring countries to smuggle everything from toothpaste to gasoline across borders to sell for a handsome profit.
Tensions between Bogota and Caracas rose further over the weekend when Colombia said three Venezuelan aircraft had been caught flying in its airspace without permission, a claim Venezuela characterized as “invented.”
However, after mediations by Ecuador and Uruguay, Maduro and his Colombian counterpart Juan Manuel Santos are to meet on Monday to discuss the dispute.
Reporting by Deisy Buitrago and Corina Pons; Writing by Girish Gupta and Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Larry King and Lisa Shumaker