Guaido: 17 Venezuelan passports are being handed out to Iranians each day

Hezbollah is present in the mining regions of South American country

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido addresses the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, on January 23, 2020.  / AFP / FABRICE COFFRINI
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Hezbollah cells are active in Venezuela and 17 passports were being handed out illegally each day to Iranians in recent years, the country’s interim President said on Thursday.

Juan Guaido, speaking in Davos at the World Economic Forum annual meeting, warned of the Iran-backed Lebanese group’s threat.

The passport scheme was happening as recently as 2016, he said, meaning dozens of Iranians can now travel on Venezuelan documents.

Hezbollah is present in the mining regions in the south of Venezuela, Mr Guaido said.

There are “various groups in the country and we are providing information on them. They are terror groups and are active in the region", he said.

“We really have to contain this and make sure we deal with this.”

Mr Guaido called on regional neighbours, the US and European nations to continue to pressure the regime of Nicolas Maduro, which is sheltering Hezbollah.

He said that Venezuela’s mineral resources were being used to fund Hezbollah and other terror and criminal groups, in much the same way as ISIS used oil in the Middle East before it was defeated.

“We need to contain this so they don’t get access” to money, Mr Guaido said.

He also referred to “blood gold” being used by criminals and terrorists.

Mr Guaido, President of the National Assembly of Venezuela, is recognised by more than 50 countries including the US as the country’s interim leader in place of Mr Maduro, who refuses to step down.

On issuing passports to Iranians, he said that typically it took six months to get one, if one could be obtained at all, by ordinary Venezuelans and “they cost a lot of money”.

CNN reported in 2017 that it had found 173 Venezuelan passports and IDs were issued to people from the Middle East, including some connected to Hezbollah.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday said “the Iranian reach throughout Europe and South America exists”.

Colombia has added Hezbollah to its list of terrorist organisations.

Mr Pompeo and Mr Guaido discussed the threat of Hezbollah in South America this week at an anti-terrorism summit, and the American official said Hezbollah "has found a home in Venezuela under Mr Maduro. This is unacceptable".

Mr Guaido declared himself president a year ago but has been unable to shift Mr Maduro from power amid an economic crisis in the country and US and European sanctions.

He defied a travel ban to leave Venezuela and has met Colombia’s President Ivan Duque, Mr Pompeo and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and addressed the European Parliament.

"While I’m here there are members of parliament who are being put in prison, who are being kidnapped because I am here," Mr Guaido said in an address in Davos on Thursday.

"We are facing an international criminal conglomerate and we need your help."

He said that Venezuela was experiencing an "unprecedented tragedy".

Human Rights Watch says illegal armed groups are active and drugs, gas and other contraband are trafficked on the border between Colombia and Venezuela.