US military transport planes carrying humanitarian aid intended for Venezuelans have landed in the Colombian border city of Cucuta.
The food and medicines are being stored there as Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro refuses to allow aid to enter the country.
Saturday’s 180-tonne shipment includes high-energy food products and hygiene kits of soap, toothpaste and other goods for more than 25,000 people.
Socialist President Maduro alleges the aid shipments are part of a plot by the US and its allies to undermine his government and back opposition leader Juan Guaido, who declared himself interim president last month.
Speaking to a crowd of supporters in eastern Caracas on Saturday, Guaido vowed to form caravans of activists to reach the border and bring aid in the country on February 23.
He also called for people to gather in cities across the country to receive the aid while calling for the armed forces to allow its entry.
Venezuela is in the throes of an economic crisis, amid hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine.
“This wasn’t the first, and it won’t be the last,” said USAID administrator Mark Green, standing on the tarmac in Cucuta at a ceremony to receive the aid. “More is on the way.”
“We are saving lives with these aeroplanes,” said Lestor Toledo, an exiled politician who is coordinating the international aid effort for Guaido.
Maduro has been using the military, which remains loyal, to help him block aid from entering Venezuela, describing it as “crumbs” from a US government whose restrictions have stripped his administration of control over many of its most valuable assets.
Critics of Maduro say his re-election last year was fraudulent, making the president’s second term illegitimate.
“They hang us, steal our money and then say ‘here, grab these crumbs’ and make a global show out of it,” Maduro told Associated Press news agency on Thursday. “With dignity, we say ‘No to the global show,’ Whoever wants to help Venezuela is welcome, but we have enough capacity to pay for everything that we need.”
His vice president has alleged, without evidence, that the aid packages are contaminated. Green on Saturday called the allegations “absurd”.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said on Saturday that the US used military aircraft to send aid to the Venezuelan border in Colombia because of the urgency of the humanitarian needs.
“It’s a message to Venezuela that we are supporting their humanitarian needs,” Shanahan told reporters.
Many of Venezuela’s neighbours and a host of western countries have recognised Guaido as the legitimate head of state, while Maduro retains the backing of Russia and China and control of Venezuelan state institutions.
The US has placed Venezuela’s US assets, including oil company Citgo, under Guaido’s control and banned financial transactions by Maduro-controlled entities.
Scores of Venezuelan officials also face personal financial sanctions in the US.