Venezuela demands Colombia return 3 military deserters

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Venezuela says three military deserters called for the ouster of President Maduro

Clashes grew this month between opposition and President Nicolas Maduro's supporters

CNN —  

Venezuela’s foreign minister has demanded that Colombia return three military officers who have sought political asylum in the neighboring country.

The apparent desertion comes amid weeks of violent protests against the administration of President Nicholas Maduro, with at least 22 people dead as a result of the turmoil..

The military desertions are believed to be the first since Maduro came to power in 2013 and could indicate weakening support for the embattled President within the armed forces, according to observers.

Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez told the state-run VTV network Saturday that three National Bolivarian Armed Forces of Venezuela lieutenants had deserted in late March and later requested political asylum in Colombia.

Rodriguez said she asked her Colombian counterpart María Ángela Holguín and Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas that the three officers be returned to their country.

“Political asylum is not granted to military officers or deserters who openly called in video for a coup d’état against President Maduro,” Rodriguez told the network.

There was no immediate reaction from Colombian authorities.

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Rodriguez may have been referring to a widely circulated video on social media in which three lieutenants said they no longer recognize Maduro as President and commander in chief and warn of a possible civil war.

CNN could not confirm the authenticity of the video.

Diosdado Cabello, a National Assembly deputy and member of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, said last week that a group of military officers were conspiring against Maduro.

On Saturday, Venezuelans took to the streets – many dressed in white – to pay tribute to those have died during weeks of bloody street protests.

The largely peaceful demonstrations involving several hundred people were a stark contrast from the chaos in which at least 13 people were killed in one day this week.

Nine were electrocuted as they tried to loot a bakery during protests Thursday night in Caracas, according to Venezuelan Communications Minister Ernesto Villegas.

Three others were fatally shot, and an additional death was reported, but details were not immediately available.

Six people also suffered gunshot wounds as other businesses, including two liquor stores, were looted, and attacks were reported in the city’s metro system, Villegas said.

The clashes between opposition supporters and backers of Maduro have intensified in recent weeks. The opposition wants Maduro to step down, accusing him of eroding democracy.

On March 29, the Venezuelan Supreme Court dissolved parliament and transferred all legislative powers to itself. The court later reversed its decision, but protests had already begun.

Maduro has branded the protesters “vandals and terrorists,” and used security forces to fire water cannons and tear gas canisters at the demonstrators.