Eight Venezuelan soldiers have been killed in clashes with armed groups operating on the Colombian border, doubling the toll since an offensive against the combatants started in March, the defense ministry in Caracas said Wednesday.
The ministry announced the names of the soldiers without providing further detail, two days after it reported fierce fighting with “irregular Colombian armed groups” that resulted in a “significant number” of casualties.
Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez took to public television to extend the government’s condolences to the families of the soldiers he said were “fulfilling the oath to defend the homeland to their last breath.”
Venezuela’s armed forces have engaged in clashes with Colombian armed groups in the western border state of Apure since March 21, displacing thousands of civilians who fled to Colombia.
The operation has so far resulted in several arrests and the seizure of weapons, explosives, and drugs, according to Caracas.
Venezuela does not name the armed groups it blames for the unrest, apart from calling them “terrorists” or linking them to drug trafficking or to Colombian President Ivan Duque.
However security sources in Colombia say they are likely dissidents of the now-disbanded Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group, an analysis Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has conceded was possible.
The FARC signed a historic peace agreement with Bogota in 2016 to end half a century of armed conflict. But some guerrilla fighters refused to join the peace process and have continued their struggle, while also mixing with and battling drug traffickers in lawless areas of Colombia.
Diplomatic relations between the neighboring South American nations have been nonexistent since Colombia joined the United States and other countries in recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s president in 2019.
Bogota has long accused Venezuela of shielding members of FARC and armed rebel group ELN on its soil, a charge Maduro denies.
Maduro earlier this month said Venezuela would request “immediate aid” from the United Nations to clear anti-personnel mines he claimed the armed groups had planted on Venezuelan territory.