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Venezuela creates military units on Colombia border amid fighting

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CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela has set up a special military unit for an area on its border with Colombia that has been the center of clashes between troops and illegal armed groups since last month, the defense minister said on Monday.

Thousands of civilians have been displaced by fighting with fighters whom President Nicolas Maduro’s government calls “terrorists”.

General Vladimir Padrino said a temporary unit called the Integrated Defense Operational Zone, or ZODI, would operate in several municipalities in the Apure state where the clashes took place.

“We will not allow any kind of force, be it conventional, irregular, criminal, drug trafficker, etc., to come to Venezuelan territory to commit crimes,” Padrino said in a televised statement.

The Venezuelan Army maintains a permanent ZODI unit for each of its 23 states and its capital, Caracas.

Padrino said eight soldiers had been killed in the fighting, while 34 soldiers had been wounded, nine members of armed groups had been killed and 33 people were being prosecuted by the military justice system.

Colombia’s foreign ministry on Monday demanded respect for the rights of the civilian population living in Apure and neighboring Colombia Arauca.

“The armed conflict in the Arauca and Apure border area is seriously affecting the lives of the civilian population and has forced families to abandon their homes and belongings,” the ministry wrote on Twitter.

Opposition critics say the fighters include dissident FARC guerrillas who reject a 2016 peace deal with the Colombian government.

Colombian Defense Minister Diego Molano told El Tiempo newspaper over the weekend that Maduro’s government was embroiled in fighting between various groups of former FARC guerrillas and was in drug trafficking with several.

Meetings were held between the Venezuelan armed forces and dissident allies to coordinate an offensive against other former FARC members, he said.

“The objective of the operations there is not border protection, it is the protection of the drug trafficking business,” Molano told the newspaper.

Venezuela denies any links to Colombian guerrillas or drug trafficking groups.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera and Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Peter Cooney)

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