Bolivarian National Guard in Urena
A demonstrator confronts a member of the Bolivarian National Guard in Urena, Venezuela, near the border with Colombia, Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019. Image Credit: AP

San Cristobal, Venezuela: US-donated humanitarian aid was "on its way" to Venezuela, opposition leader Juan Gauido announced Saturday as he launched a distribution operation with the presidents of Colombia, Chile and Paraguay.

"The humanitarian aid is definitely going to Venezuela in a peaceful and calm manner to save lives at this time," said Guaido, at a ceremony to launch the effort on the Colombian side of the border in defiance of a blockade by President Nicolas Maduro.

Earlier, Venezuelan troops fired tear gas at angry protesters unable to cross into Colombia on Saturday after President Nicolas Maduro closed the border to stop the opposition bringing US humanitarian aid into the South American nation.

Demonstrators set up barricades and burned tires in the Venezuelan border town of Urena, as attention turned to whether National Guard troops stationed at the border crossing would fulfill Maduro's orders to block humanitarian aid from reaching a sick and hungry population.

Four National Guard troops at the frontier disavowed Maduro's socialist government on Saturday, following an appeal from Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido to let aid through.

A social media video showed the troops driving armored vehicles across a bridge linking the two countries, knocking over metal barricades in the process, and then jumping out of the vehicles and running to the Colombian side.

"Among the troops, whether they are in the army, air force, navy or National Guard, many people disagree (with what is happening)," one of the troops, an officer whose uniform carried the name Linarez, told reporters after entering Colombia, according to another video on social media. "You can't say anything against the government. It's treason." Colombia's migration authority confirmed the defection of the four Venezuelan soldiers.

Politicians from the Venezuelan opposition and their supporters prepared to challenge President Nicols Maduro's blockade of US and other foreign aid on Saturday, as fears mounted that the attempt could be stymied by further violence in the state.

After an attack by the Venezuelan military near the Brazilian border that left two civilians dead and 11 wounded, groups of volunteers and opposition leaders boarded early-morning buses, cars and motorbikes en route to the eastern Colombian border. In addition to vows of bringing in aid by sea and land - and via human chain if necessary - the opposition also planned large-scale rallies in cities nationwide to demand the admittance of international relief.

"I'm very concerned with the information we've received about paramilitary groups and other irregular groups already at the border with the intention to spread violence," said opposition politician Nora Bracho. "We have no doubt that there will be violence, absolutely no doubt."

The Venezuelan government late Friday announced the "temporary closing" of three key border crossings with Colombia. And just before the 8am start time to the effort to break the blockade, a violent confrontation broke out on the Santander bridge in the western border town in Urea - one the crossings to Colombia ordered closed by the Maduro government on Friday.

About 200 people - a mixture protesters seeking to bring in aid, and Venezuelan workers with jobs on the Colombian side of the border - began throwing rocks at border guards, who responded with volleys of tear gas.

"Think they are the owners of Venezuela," Maria Zambrano, a 46-year-old engineer who arrived in Urea, Venezuela, to join the aid effort, said of the guards. She said a cousin of hers with cancer cannot find medication for treatment. "But we are all united, and we will get this aid in. They won't be able to shoot us all."

However, at another border crossing - the Simn Bolvar bridge - the opposition plan to divide Maduro's military began to take shape with four members of the Venezuela National Guard abandoning their posts.

"They have just deserted the dictatorship of Nicols Maduro," declared Migracin Colombia - Colombian's migration agency - in a statement.

Pivotal moment

Saturday's operation has been billed by the opposition and its allies in the Trump administration as a pivotal moment in their active bid to topple Maduro's socialists. The plan is to try to bring in stockpiles of humanitarian aid donated by nations including the United States and stored in neighboring countries.

Though meant to relieve mounting hunger and disease in a nation teetering on the verge of becoming a failed state, the move is also meant to test the military's loyalty to Maduro by encouraging the armed forces to disobey his government's direct order to keep the aid out.

"Venezuela, the day has arrived in which we will take the step to enter humanitarian aid. From our borders, by land and sea, we will bring hope, food and medicines for the ones who need it the most," Juan Guaid - the opposition leader who claimed the nation's legitimate mantel of power exactly one month ago - tweeted Saturday. "We call everyone to go out massively to the streets in the whole country, to protest in peace at barracks, to urge the armed forces to let humanitarian aid in."

In defiance of a ban against leaving the country, Guaid made a secretive trip to Colombia on Friday, where he said he would help bring aid across the border. He suggested the Venezuelan armed forces had helped him spirit across his nation's western frontier.

His arrival across the border smacked of an embarrassment for Maduro. But it also came in defiance of a travel ban issued by Venezuela's Supreme Court, and he was running the risk of being barred from reentry or arrested upon return.

Guaid had left Caracas on Thursday with a caravan of 10 vans and was repeatedly stopped at checkpoints, according to his spokesman, Edward Rodriguez. Asked if Guaid faced risks returning to Venezuela, Rodriguez said "everything is under control."

Asked Friday during a news conference at the United Nations in New York about Guaid's presence in Colombia and whether he would be allowed to return, Maduro's foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza, said: "The Venezuelan justice system is autonomous, and many Venezuelans don't agree with Mr. Guaid being in freedom. I hope justice will be done. The justice system will do what's necessary."

Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based political analyst, said Guaid was risking "a lot."

"Unless he's sure the international reaction will have a big enough magnitude to leave Maduro with no option other than letting him back in," Pantoulas said. "But the risk is too high and there's no guarantee of what will happen. To me, it seems unnecessary."

The attention on Saturday remained immediately focused on the single largest staging ground for aid in Cucuta, Colombia - where a massive benefit concert hosted by British billionaire Richard Branson drew a crowd of more than 200,000 people Friday.

In Cucuta, a convoy of 14 trucks bearing 280 tons of aid - including medicines, health supplements, and more - were stationed and prepped at a loading dock in front of a warehouse.

Organizers in Cucuta have called for "every available Venezuelan" to turn up Saturday morning at 8 a.m. and await further orders as thousands camped out in a field overnight near the concert site.

Many began to awake before dawn on a rocky ground of a camp set up for them, and began moving toward arranged meeting points to join the effort.

"We're betting everything on this," said Ricardo Justo, a 24-year-old salesman from Caracas who traveled 27 hours in bus from Caracas with a group of 30. "We'll do whatever they tell us to."

Overnight, Lester Toledo, head of Guaid's delegation in Cucuta, addressed the crowd, telling them to have faith that the Venezuelan border guards would let them pass. Volunteers said they were prepared to make a leap of faith.

"What else can we do? I'll fight until I can't fight anymore," said Jose Antonio Prez, 24, a health worker from nearby San Antonio. "This is the most anticipated day ever in Venezuela."

Venezuelan opposition officials say they'll be at each border crossing to meet protesters and give further instructions. The opposition leaders assured their supporters that they, and not the volunteers, would walk out front when they confronted Maduro's border guards.

Mari Rivera, 46, a Venezuelan living in Cucuta, said she believes they have enough people to push the shipping containers over. If not, she said, they'll take the aid under the bridge and through a shallow river.

Air raid sirens on bull horns awoke the camp at 5:20 a.m., rousing them for a day of action. Folk music began playing. Kleibysad Saab, a 47-year-old Venezuelan from the state of Carabobo, lead a crowd in chants of "freedom" before offering a prayer.

"No man can close the doors that God has opened," she said. "Here we go!"

The crowd roared an amen.

Eduardo Espinel, a Venezuelan opposition politician, said the opposition would try to move aid over the border via human chains if truck convoys could not get through.

Here in the western city of San Cristobal, about 150 people divided in four buses were stationed at one of the points where the opposition called yesterday for residents to gather to be taken to the border. But around 35 soldiers with shields and a convoy were blocking the way, telling them they had orders to only let cars pass.

Three drivers decided to order people to leave their buses because they heard vehicles were being impounded en route. About 110 people began to walk up a hill toward the border, hoping they would get a ride on the way. But they were quickly blocked by armed guards, and began shouting "let us pass, let us pass." Within minutes they were allowed.

Calls for freedom

"They know which is the right side," said Julian Pozo, 54. "They are suffering too."

Many marchers wore white shirts that read "freedom for Venezuela."

"I want to free Venezuela from this yoke. The abuse has to end," said Asdrubal Castillo, a 65-year-old farmer said. "This is a historical moment. It's either now or never."

Besides the threat of military force, volunteers faced perhaps the even more dangerous possibility of violence by unruly pro-government militias, known as colectivos, as well as Colombian guerrilla groups that control large swaths of the border.

William Barrientos, an opposition politician trying to get to the border from San Cristobal, said that colectivos had already begun attacking buses overnight.

"Colectivos attacked one of the buses with our colleagues and took everything from them," he said.

He said the opposition would seek to overwhelm Maduro's forces through sheer numbers, vowing that the military would need to use force on an equally massive scale to stop them.

"And if they do, it would be a genocide," he said.

Even Maduro's foreign minister, Arreaza, sounded a note of alarm, though he said the opposition would seek to falsely blame the government for violence that it might start.

"We are worried that a situation to lament will take place tomorrow because there's many Colombian military groups at the border," he said. "Never would the armed forces shoot against the people. . . . We hope reason reigns and that this doesn't end up being a show to open the doors for a military intervention."

Ahead of Saturday's operation, opposition leaders who had arrived in the western city from Caracas were re-strategizing their trips to the border to account for higher threat levels.

After receiving information from "internal sources" of possible violence and blockades on the way, they said, they were still weighing the most secure way to proceed.

Alexis Paparoni, an opposition lawmaker, said that "if the buses are blocked, we will have motorbikes following us to continue going."

Paparoni said there were signs Saturday could be violent, including the killing of two indigenous people and acts of official repression - including the use of tear gas - against opposition politicians on their way to the border from Caracas.

But, he said, "we hope the armed forces will join our side and avoid violence."