Report up to 48 Dead in Fight Between Troops and Drug Traffickers
MARACAIBO, Venezuela (AP) _ The defense minister said Tuesday that 33 suspected drug traffickers and 15 national guardsmen were killed in a weekend attack on the troopers’ outpost.
Defense minister Jose Rafael Cardozo Grimaldi issued the report after inspecting the battle zone. He said 10 guardsmen were wounded.
Cardozo Grimaldi’s statement contradicted previous reports released in Defense Ministry communiques. One said 18 guardsmen were killed in a predawn raid Tuesday near the Colombian border and local news reports said 25 of the attackers may have been slain.
Another ministry communique said nine guardsmen were killed, two were missing, nine were wounded and 28 drug traffickers were killed.
Army sources, who demanded anonymity, said about 100 men attacked the sleeping guardsmen with grenades, anti-tank rockers and mortars sometime between Friday evening and Saturday morning.
The Defense Ministry report said the attack occured at 4:25 a.m. Tuesday near the Agdababu River, nine miles from the Colombian border and 434 miles west of Caracas.
According to the army sources, the 52-man national guard unit had been sent to the area to destroy 198 acres of marijuana and 123 acres of coca discovered in the area two weeks ago. They said 20 men were sleeping in a shack that had been used to process coca leaves into cocaine paste amd the other 32 were in the surrounding fields.
The nearest city to the area is Maracaibo, 312 miles west of Caracas.
″The first group (in the shack) was the target of the attackers,″ army sources said, adding that the larger group of guardsmen went to the aid of their besieged comrades.
Reporters who visited the scene Tuesday said they saw the bodies of several guardsmen, but no bodies of the assailants.
The army sources said that the attackers carried away the bodies of their slain companions.
Bad weather hindered efforts to pursue the attackers, according to those sources.
They said four guardsmen hiked through difficult terrain to notify the nearest military post of the attack.
The Sierra de Perija, the mountainous border region where the attack occured, is a base for drug traffickers, both Colombian and Venezuelan, sometimes working with Colombia left-wing guerrillas.
Last year, an armed group attacked another Venezuelan guard unit working 186 miles to the south of the Sierra de Perija, killing three guardsmen and wounding 11.
Three years ago, the Colombia group National Liberation Army threatened to attack border posts.