SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela - Venezuelan soldiers opened fire on a group of civilians attempting to keep open a segment of the southern border with Brazil for deliveries of humanitarian aid, causing multiple injuries and the first fatalities of a massive opposition operation meant to deliver international relief to this devastated South American country, according to eyewitnesses and community leaders.
The violence unfolded as the United States and the government of embattled President Nicolás Maduro defused at least one immediate source of tension - a looming deadline on Monday for all American and Venezuelan diplomats to respectively depart Caracas and Washington. The agreement bought both sides more time to negotiate a longer-term diplomatic presence after the rupture of official relations last month.
Later Friday, Juan Guaidó, the head of the Venezuelan opposition who has claimed the nation's mantel of legitimate leadership and called Maduro a "usurper," made a surprise appearance in the border city of Cúcuta, Colombia, after a secretive trip by land from the capital of Caracas. His arrival to assist in the effort to cart humanitarian aid across the border smacked of an embarrassment for Maduro.
But it also came in defiance of a travel ban issued by Venezuela's Supreme Court and he risked being arrested upon return or barred from re-entering - something that could significantly dampen the opposition's momentum.
Guaido had left Caracas on Thursday with a caravan of ten vans, and was repeatedly stopped at checkpoints, according to his spokesman, Edward Rodriguez. Asked if Guiado would be returning to Venezuela, he said "of course he is."
"He is risking a lot," said political analyst Dimitris Pantoulas. "Unless he's sure the international reaction will have a big enough magnitude to leave Maduro with no option other than letting him back in. But the risk is too high and there's no guarantee of what will happen. To me, it seems unnecessary."
The assault on the Venezuela-Brazil border raised concerns of further violence as the opposition sought on Saturday to defy Maduro's blockade of humanitarian aid donated by nations including the United States and stored in neighboring countries. Though meant to relieve mounting hunger and disease in this collapsing socialist state, the move is also meant to test the military's loyalty to Maduro by encouraging the armed forces to disobey his government's direct order to keep the aid out.
Friday's fatalities did not come on the western border, where global attention was focused amid a star-studded benefit concert for Venezuela in the Colombian city of Cúcuta, where co-organizer and British billionaire Richard Branson led a crowd of more than 200,000 revelers. Instead, it happened in the desperately poor Amazonian savanna near Brazil. The victims: indigenous Venezuelans who have long fought for land rights and had backed the opposition. When the military fired, those present said, they were trying to block the military from carrying out Maduro's orders to close the border with Brazil to bar humanitarian aid.
"The majority of the people support the entrance of humanitarian aid, and we want to keep our border open," said Carmen Elena Silva, 48, who was in the crowd of civilians when soldiers began firing assault rifles. "This is help, not war . . . Every day more children die."
At 6:30 a.m. on Friday, a military convoy approached a checkpoint set up by an indigenous community in the southern village of Kumarakapay, on the main artery linking Venezuela to Brazil. Maduro on Thursday ordered the closure of Venezuela's border with Brazil.
When the opposition supporters sought to block the military vehicles by standing in front of them, soldiers began firing assault rifles. At least two people were killed and a dozen wounded, at least three of them seriously. The dead were named as a woman, Zorayda Rodriguez, 42, and a man, Rolando Garcia, 51.
At least 30 neighbors took to the streets following the shootings, kidnapping three soldiers.
The Trump administration, which had demanded that Mauro step down, promptly denounced the shooting. "The United States condemns the killings, attacks, and the hundreds of arbitrary detentions that have taken place in Venezuela," a State Department spokesman said. "We stand with the victims' families in demanding justice and accountability." (Vice President Mike Pence, who is one of the administration's most forceful Maduro critics, is scheduled to be in Colombia on Monday for a long-planned meeting of the Lima Group - a consortium of Latin American countries, plus Canada, that have called for Maduro's ouster.)
In tweets, Guaidó - who was en route to the Colombian border - referred to the shooting as a "crime" that "will not go unpunished."
In a separate tweet, he added, "To soldiers: between today and tomorrow you will define how to be remembered. We know you are with the people, you have made it clear to us. Tomorrow you can demonstrate it."
Jorge Perez, a local councilman in Gran Sabana, the district in which the town is located, said he was present when the soldiers opened fire. "I ask the armed forces, is it constitutional for them to fire against unarmed indigenous people?" he said. "Is it constitutional to kill indigenous people?"
In a press conference at the United Nations in New York, Venezuela's Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza insisted that the bullets recovered in the wounded did not match the rounds used by the armed forces.
"How easy it is to say that it was the soldiers," Arreaza said. "Many of [the indigenous victims] were wounded by arrows."
The activists belonged to the Pemones indigenous tribe and had joined the opposition effort to haul in aid donated by the United States and neighboring countries from bordering nations on Saturday. The aid is coming from nations - including the United States - that have demanded that Maduro step down. His government has ordered a full blockade of the aid and dispatched the military to reinforce Venezuela's borders.
The incident appeared to be the most violent confrontation yet in a still-unfolding operation in which thousands of volunteers are seeking to reach bordering nations to haul in the aid. On Friday, the United States sent another planeload of aid to Colombia for delivery to Venezuela. Opposition leaders feared more clashes on Saturday, when volunteers plan to bring the aid over the border.
Tensions between the military and the indigenous Pemones involved in the fatal exchange have been rising for years over the fast spread of illegal gold mining on their traditional lands. Opposition leaders convening in San Cristobal, the largest Venezuelan metropolis near the Colombian border, denounced the use of excessive force.
"We have to condemn what happened today," said Maria Gabriela Chávez, a coordinator for environmental issues in the National Assembly, the opposition-controlled legislature that Maduro stripped of its powers in 2017. "In the new Venezuela that is coming, we will assume this pain and experience as a lesson."
By Friday afternoon, another group of opposition officials arrived in San Cristobal after a 30-hour road trip from Caracas. They said security forces had aggressively sought to stop them en route.
"They blocked us at a tunnel, threw tear gas bombs at us," said Delsa Solorzano, an opposition official. "They wanted to seize our vehicles later. We had a difficult road but we are profoundly proud because we arrived here thanks to the people who were awaiting us in each town, in each city, and the people tried to help us pass the guard's checkpoints. Multitudes received us everywhere it was incredible."
Friday was also a day of dueling concerts on the Venezuelan-Colombian border. One - the Branson benefit that lured the likes of mega celebrities Maluma and Luis Fonzi - drew massive crowds that organizers placed at over 200,000. Attendees wore shirts bearing Venezuelan protest slogans and broke out frequently in chants of "libertad" - liberty.
"Tomorrow we will liberate our country," shouted one young man holding a Venezuelan flag as hundreds around roared with excitement.
Elliott Abrams, Trump's special envoy to Venezuela, said during a Friday news conference in Cúcuta, with concert music blaring in the background, that opposition supporters were in this for the long haul. "What do we do if the government of Maduro doesn't fall tomorrow?" he said. "We continue."
On the other side of the border, Maduro's government held a far more sparsely attended "HandsOffVenezuela" concert, set to stretch into Saturday and which critics decried as a ruse meant to physically block access to aid.
At the start of the concert, Diosdado Cabello, one of Maduro's inner circle, said "some people were alarmed about the concert, saying we're imitating what the right-wing is doing [on the other side of the border]. But no. They're wrong. We are dedicated to bringing joy to Venezuela."
In San Cristobal, opposition lawmakers outlined plans for an operation Saturday meant to receive aid shipments that have piled up in Cúcuta, a Colombian border city.
Franklin Duarte, an opposition official, announced four points of departure starting at 3 a.m. He said volunteers would be bused to the four international bridges that connect bordering cities to Cúcuta, to help the aid come in. Those volunteers who are planning to stay in San Cristobal, he said, would march toward the city's military barracks holding flags.
"Unlike protests in the past, this time the people will stay in the street until containers of humanitarian aid come in," he said.
"Tomorrow will mark the before and after for Venezuelans fighting to get back their democracy," said Edgar Zambrano, vice president of the National Assembly.
The governor of the state of Tachira, Laidy Gomez, called on both sides to avoid violence.
"To violence, we have to respond with peace," she said, "and to tell the violent that we, the good ones, are better than that, that we do not want a war."
The Maduro government, however, was reinforcing its efforts to stop the aid from coming in. In a statement, Colombian authorities said that shipping containers - overturned by the government earlier this month to block the Tienditas bridge connecting Venezuela and Colombia - were welded in place overnight.
"Last night, while Cúcuta and the world were preparing to raise their voices in unison for the Freedom of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro's dictatorship welded the containers to the structure of the Unity Bridge, as if it were a metaphor for the dictator clinging to power," Colombian migration authorities said in a statement.
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The Washington Post’s Carol Morello in Washington and Dylan Baddour in Cúcuta contributed to this report.