CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — About 1,000 members of the Venezuelan security forces have fled to Colombia since last month, giving up weapons and uniforms as they abandoned the government of President Nicolas Maduro, Colombian authorities said Monday.
Colombia's foreign ministry released the updated number of Venezuelan police and soldiers who crossed the border, many around the time of a Feb. 23 attempt by opposition leader Juan Guaido to deliver U.S.-provided humanitarian aid to Venezuela. The attempt failed because Venezuelan forces blocked trucks trying to cross from Colombia into Venezuela.
The deserters have received lodging, health care and legal aid, and were accompanied by some 400 family members, Colombian officials said. Colombia, the United States and about 50 other countries support Guaido's claim that he is the interim president of Venezuela and that Maduro is illegitimate because his re-election last year was marred by irregularities.
The welfare of the Venezuelan deserters, and their families back home, is a growing concern.
Jean Marchena Castillo, an army captain, told local media that pro-Maduro forces were threatening relatives of some of those who fled Venezuela. Some deserters say their small military salaries were the only source of income for their families.
Humberto Calderon Berti, Guaido's representative in Colombia, said he plans to work with Colombian authorities to provide training and employment opportunities to the men.
Diosdado Cabello, a leading pro-Maduro politician, said in Caracas on Monday that the security forces who fled to Colombia had been offered bribes to do so. Deserters strongly deny such allegations.
Despite the desertions, Maduro has retained the support of Venezuela's key military leaders, who are considered pivotal in determining the outcome of the country's power struggle. Maduro alleges Guaido is a collaborator in a U.S. plot to overthrow the government in Venezuela, whose population is enduring hyperinflation and a scarcity of medicine and other necessities that the opposition blames on the administration's socialist policies.
More than 3 million Venezuelans have fled the country in recent years, about one-third of them finding refuge in Colombia.
Nearly a week after Venezuela's worst blackouts inflicted more hardship across the country, Maduro was said to be planning a Cabinet reshuffle. Vice President Delcy Rodriguez made the announcement on Twitter on Sunday, though she did not provide details. Some past reshuffles have entailed rotations of ministers rather than a major overhaul of leadership.
Key Cabinet figures include Rodriguez, a former foreign minister; Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez, brother of the vice president; and Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, a military general. All face U.S. sanctions for alleged corruption and human rights violations.
Guaido on Monday scoffed at the report of Cabinet changes, telling journalists it merely reflects how the government is weakening and "without answers."
He again said the nationwide power outages were the result of government corruption and mismanagement and not, as Maduro claims, an act of sabotage directed by the United States.
U.S. and Russian officials, meanwhile, were meeting in Rome to discuss the crisis in Venezuela. Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special envoy for Venezuela, was to hold talks with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on Monday and Tuesday, the U.S. State Department said. Ryabkov said in comments carried by Russian media, "We will do everything to protect our cooperation with Caracas."
Moscow supports Maduro while Washington has imposed oil sanctions on Venezuela in an attempt to push Maduro from power.
Also Monday, in a move welcomed by U.S. officials, envoys loyal to Guaido took over two Venezuelan diplomatic buildings in Washington and the consulate in New York. Panama also accepted a Guaido loyalist as Venezuela's ambassador.
Maduro has cut diplomatic ties with the U.S., though diplomats loyal to him are still in the United States as representatives to the United Nations and the Organization of American States.
Venezuela's foreign ministry said the takeover by Guaido's envoys was illegal and urged the United States to reverse it, saying there could be "reciprocal" actions in Venezuela if it doesn't. It did not provide details on what those actions might be.
The last remaining American diplomats in Venezuela left the embassy in Caracas and flew home Thursday.
Associated Press journalists Jorge Rueda and Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas, Cesar Garcia in Bogota, Colombia, Luis Alonso Lugo in Washington and Karl Ritter in Rome contributed to this report.