Ten Colombian “paramilitaries” died during violent clashes between armed groups and security forces that have ravaged Caracas, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said Monday.
Firefights first broke out Wednesday evening, forcing people to flee their homes.
The socialist leader said at least 20 “Colombian paramilitaries” helped train armed groups that have carried out constant shootings, leaving an unknown number of civilians killed by “stray bullets.”
“At least 20 Colombian paramilitaries, we captured three with their weapons, it seems that others were killed who are being identified,” Maduro said in front of the presidential Miraflores Palace.
“I don’t know if the number they gave me is exact, 10 killed, and there are others fleeing and we are looking for them.”
Venezuela’s armed forces have engaged in clashes with Colombian armed groups along the border since March 21, displacing thousands of civilians who fled to Colombia.
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 Maduro — who has accused Colombia and the United States of seeking to overthrow him — has conceded was possible.
Maduro said the paramilitaries had been training “criminals and terrorists” for months.
“They had trenches, they had a place called the bunker, they had a logistical preparation typical of paramilitaries for a war in Caracas,” he said, adding that “between 200 to 300 criminals” were paid with money earned from drug trafficking.
On Saturday, at least 26 people died after nearly two days of clashes between Venezuelan security forces and gangs that control poor neighborhoods of Caracas.
The toll is 22 suspected gang members and four police officers dead, Interior Minister Carmen Melendez said.
She said an unspecified number of non-combatants died and 28 people were wounded, 18 of them bystanders.
As many as 2,500 officers were deployed to take one barrio, or slum called Cota 905. Authorities offered a reward of $500,000 for the gang boss that runs it.
Police seized 24,000 rounds of ammunition, three rocket launchers, five rifles, four submachine guns, and several handguns.
There were enough “bullets for a year-long war,” Maduro said Monday, without specifying if the 10 paramilitaries were among Saturday’s dead.
He also said that part of the weapons cache belonged to the Colombian national police and the Colombian army.
Maduro has linked the criminal gangs to an alleged plan by the Venezuelan opposition, backed by the United States and Colombia, to “destabilize” his government.
Bogota, meanwhile, has long accused Venezuela of shielding members of the FARC and armed rebel group ELN on its soil — a charge Maduro denies.
Some FARC fighters who refused to join the peace process have continued their struggle, while also mixing with and battling drug traffickers in lawless areas of Colombia.
Venezuela and Colombia, which share a 2,200-kilometer (1,370-mile) border, severed diplomatic ties in January 2019, after Bogota recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as the leader of Venezuela over Maduro following a disputed election.