A Venezuelan fighter jet with two people on board crashed near the Colombian border late on Thursday evening after an “illicit aircraft” believed to be Colombian was found violating airspace, according to the Venezuelan government.
It was not immediately clear whether the two pilots on board the Sukhoi-30 aircraft had been killed. The cause of the crash has not been determined.
The crash comes amid growing tension between the South American neighbours after Venezuela closed major border crossings in recent weeks in what it said was a crackdown on crime.
“Our air force will continue to fight relentlessly … to guarantee our sovereignty and independence, combating the scourges of narcotrafficking, paramilitarism and other crimes committed on the Colombia-Venezuela border,” Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino said in a statement.
He added that the zone in which the plane illegally entered Venezuela was known to be used by “mafias linked to narcotrafficking.”
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has closed border crossings and deported more than 1,500 Colombians over the last month. He blames smuggling for Venezuela’s chronic shortages of basic goods.
Around 18,000 Colombians have left Venezuela, according to Colombian authorities, some wading across the river border carrying everything from mattresses to refrigerators on their backs.
Tension rose further over the weekend when Colombia said three Venezuelan aircraft were caught flying in its airspace without permission, a claim Venezuela said was “invented.”
Critics of Venezuela’s government see its crackdown as an attempted diversion before December elections. Maduro’s popularity remains low amid anger over empty supermarket shelves, high crime rates and annual inflation thought to be in triple digits.
Venezuela’s strict price and currency controls have created huge discrepancies in the price of goods between it and Colombia, leading to smuggling of everything from toothpaste to gasoline.
Venezuela says the value of goods smuggled out of the country amounts to $US2 billion per year.
Maduro is set to meet his Colombian counterpart Juan Manuel Santos on Monday in Ecuador.
A rescue mission has been deployed to search for the pilots and an investigation launched, Padrino said.
(Reporting by Deisy Buitrago; Writing by Girish Gupta; Editing by Larry King)
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