September 30, 2019 / 4:48 PM / 22 days ago

Amid criticism, Colombia defends assertions that Venezuela's Maduro supports rebels

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia on Monday publicly defended a dossier it says proves Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro supports guerrilla groups and drug traffickers but removed the armed forces’ head of intelligence after widespread criticism of the report.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gestures during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela, September 30, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

Colombia has long accused Maduro of sheltering rebel fighters and crime gang members. The allegations reached a fever pitch last month when former commanders from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announced a rearmament in a video Colombian officials say was filmed in Venezuela.

President Ivan Duque said in a speech to the United Nations last week that he would give the organisation a dossier of “conclusive proof” of Maduro’s support for terrorist groups.

The dossier included years-old, uncredited photos from news agencies taken in Colombia - not in Venezuela - which led Maduro to dismiss the dossier’s contents and sparked widespread criticism of Duque from media outlets and NGOs.

The armed forces’ head of intelligence, General Oswaldo Pena, was removed from his post because of the photographs, high-level government and military sources told Reuters.

A statement from the defence ministry said Pena had resigned because of “the necessity of responding for my actions.”

Colombian officials defended the report’s conclusions earlier on Monday.

“It’s just an issue of design and of giving credit at the foot of the photos,” Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo told journalists. “In consequence, we are going to update using the armed forces’ exclusive photos.”

“What’s important is the grave threat of the Maduro regime to the peace and stability of Colombia...to the peace, the security and stability of the region,” Trujillo said.

The head of the national police, General Oscar Atehortua, showed photographs of three leaders from the National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels he said were taken in Venezuelan cities and obtained from confiscated devices.

An ELN leader known by his nom de guerre Pablito is hiding in the Venezuelan province of Apure, officials said.

“Venezuela is serving as a sanctuary for the leaders of the ELN and (FARC dissidents),” Defense Minister Guillermo Botero said. “They have bank accounts, they launder money, they do tourism, they have properties there without the authorities doing anything at all.”

The U.S. Embassy in Bogota said in a statement it “fully backed” the report’s conclusions.

Colombia is among more than 50 countries that recognise opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful leader.

Maduro accuses Colombia of preparing to attack Venezuela, and says Guaido is a U.S. puppet.

Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Cynthia Osterman

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