December 20, 2016 / 5:08 PM / 7 months ago

Venezuela reopens Colombia border after crackdown

3 Min Read

A girl stands next to a barbed wire fence as she waits to try to cross the border to Colombia over the Francisco de Paula Santander international bridge in Urena, Venezuela December 18, 2016.Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela began reopening its border with Colombia on Tuesday earlier than expected after shutting it last week amid a crackdown on smugglers and criminal gangs.

President Nicolas Maduro had said crossings along the 2,200-kilometer (1,400-mile) frontier between the South American neighbors would remain closed until Jan. 2.

That, combined with the elimination of Venezuela's largest currency note, had interrupted long-rampant contraband of goods and cash by gangs on both sides.

But it also dismayed many Colombians resident in Venezuela hoping to return for Christmas holidays.

And Venezuelans living in border states, who rely on trips to Colombia to buy food and medicines scarce at home during an economic crisis, had been protesting at the measure.

Some had defied the ban to jump fences and cross anyway.

Maduro and Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos spoke by telephone and decided to gradually reopen border posts "with strict vigilance and security", Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said via Twitter.

People were crossing normally again from the morning.

Elsewhere, Venezuela was calmer on Tuesday after widespread protests and lootings over the weekend sparked by a cash shortage following Maduro's currency measure which he later postponed in response to the chaos.

At least three people were killed, 405 people arrested, and hundreds of shops ransacked, especially in the states of Bolivar and Tachira.

Maduro, a 54-year-old former bus driver and foreign minister who replaced Hugo Chavez in 2013, has seen his popularity plunge during a three-year recession in the OPEC nation.

Demanding his resignation, a handful of hardline opposition leaders stood outside the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas on Tuesday holding letters that read "Maduro Out".

"We are demanding him to leave his post," one of them, David Smolansky said. "We don't want more deaths, more hunger, more crime, that's why he must vacate Miraflores."

The socialist leader, who has staved off an opposition push to hold a referendum to remove him this year, accuses his foes of seeking a coup against him with U.S. support.

Maduro, whose term runs to January 2019, says his enemies are sabotaging Venezuela's economy, while critics blame failed socialist policies for the world's highest inflation, long lines at shops, and shortages of basics.

Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Alistair Bell

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