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CARACAS: Venezuela has expelled five visiting European lawmakers, an act opposition leader Juan Gua­ido branded “irrational” as his showdown with Pres­ident Nicolas Mad­uro over the arrival of international aid intensifies.

The members of the European Parliament were being tossed out with no explanation, said Spanish MEP Esteban Gonzalez Pons, who led the group. “We are being expelled from Venezuela. Our passports have been seized. They have not informed us of the reason for the expulsion,” Pons said.

The incident on Sunday is the latest point of tension between the international community and Maduro, who is in the grip of a power struggle with Guaido, the head of the National Assembly who proclaimed himself interim president last month. Guaido has the backing of more than 50 countries including 30 in Europe.

Pons’ fellow Spaniards Jose Ignacio Salafranca and Gabriel Mato Adrover, as well as Esther de Lange of the Netherlands and Paulo Rangel of Portugal, were also expelled. All are members of the conservative European People’s Party (PPE).

Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said the Europeans had “conspiratorial aims” and were sent back from the country’s main Maiquetia airport.

Aid operations

Earlier on Sunday Guaido set a goal of enlisting a million volunteers within a week to confront a government blockade that has kept tons of humanitarian aid, most of it from the United States, from flowing into the country where residents can’t get enough food and say they are dying because of a shortage of medicines.

Guaido has given next Saturday — one month to the day after he proclaimed himself acting president — as the date for a showdown with Maduro over the aid. Caravans of buses are being planned to carry volunteers to border entry points to meet and transport arriving cargo. Guaido has kept to himself how he plans to overcome the border barriers put up by the Venezuelan military, on Maduro’s orders.

Volunteer groups have begun meeting in “humanitarian camps” in several Venezuelan states to organise and prepare for the aid arrival. Sometimes working under awnings or tents, doctors, nurses, dentists and pediatricians have attended to local residents who can receive donated medications.

Maduro, who denies the existence of a humanitarian crisis, dismisses the opposition moves as a “political show” and a cover for a US invasion.

US Senator Marco Rubio arrived on Sunday in Cucuta for a first-hand look at the aid operations. Three US military cargo planes delivered several dozen more tons of food assistance to Cucuta on Saturday. Another US aircraft is due in Curacao from Miami on Tuesday, and a collection centre for Brazilian aid will open on Monday on the border, Guaido’s team said.

For analyst Benigno Alarcon, “as the regime closes the door on humanitarian aid, it closes it to a peaceful solution to the political situation in the country”.

Published in Dawn, February 19th, 2019