Venezuela's defense minister said Sunday that 10 killings near the border with Colombia may be the work of warring factions in that country's internal conflict, and said Venezuelan troops are stepping up security.
Mostly Colombians, the 10 were executed and their bodies were found in multiple spots in western Tachira state on Saturday, Defense Minister Ramon Carrizalez said. Authorities believe the victims were among a group of 12 recently abducted in the area.
The killings occurred amid tensions between Venezuela and Colombia, with accusations flying over the adequacy of Venezuela's efforts to police its territory and stem the flow of Colombian cocaine.
In Colombia, President Alvaro Uribe condemned the killings and said they "show that terrorism is international, that it has no borders." He offered help in the investigation and expressed confidence that Venezuelan authorities will act promptly to "take those terrorists to jail."
Taken away in vehicles
Relatives told authorities that those who were kidnapped — including 10 Colombians, a Peruvian and a Venezuelan — were seized by a group of armed men dressed in black on Oct. 11 from a field where they were playing football, the Public Ministry said in a statement Sunday. It said the armed men are believed to have called out the names of the members of the football team one-by-one before taking them away in vehicles.
Carrizalez, who is also vice president, said one man survived the ordeal, and another was believed missing. The survivor, 19-year-old Colombian Manuel Cortes, was shot in the face and the bullet passed through his jaw, said Mauricio Lopez, a brother of the victim.
Several of the Colombians were from the town of Bucaramanga, and investigators suspect their killings may have resulted from "confrontation between irregular groups as part of the Colombian conflict," Carrizalez said. He said Venezuelan troops are increasing patrols to sweep the area and have orders to "act forcefully" against any armed Colombian group.
Colombian officials in the past have accused Venezuela of allowing leftist Colombian rebels to take refuge across the border.
Carrizalez said the remote border region is difficult to control and that "we're a victim of this conflict" spilling across from Colombia.
Relations have been tense recently between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Colombia's U.S.-allied government.
On Friday, Colombia's defense minister, Gabriel Silva, said he is concerned about the possibility of a "free" flow of planes passing unhindered through Venezuelan territory laden with Colombian cocaine.
Venezuela protested the comments in a diplomatic note, and Chavez ridiculed Silva on Sunday, saying "he's mentally retarded at least" and is "following instructions from the (U.S.) empire."
Chavez contends that Colombia and the U.S. have tried to use the drug issue to unfairly discredit his government.