Members of the National Guard use their shields behind a fire during clashes with anti-government demonstrators in Caracas, on July 26, 2017. Venezuelans blocked off deserted streets Wednesday as a 48-hour opposition-led general strike aimed at thwarting embattled President Nicolas Maduro’s controversial plans to rewrite the country’s constitution got underway. / AFP PHOTO / RONALDO SCHEMIDT
Venezuela’s military on Monday hunted a group of “mercenaries” who made off with weapons in an attack on an army base carried out against what they called the “murderous tyranny” of President Nicolas Maduro.
Around 20 men led by a dissident army officer, who deserted several years ago, battled troops for three hours early Sunday at the base in the city of Valencia, officials said.
The raid ended with two of the attackers killed and eight captured, Maduro said on state television.
The other 10 escaped with weapons taken from the facility, according to officials who said an “intense search” was underway for them.
Maduro claimed the “terrorist” group had ties to Colombia and the United States.
The incident heightened fears that Venezuela’s intensifying political and economic crisis could explode into greater violence, perhaps open armed conflict.
Officials insisted afterward that all was normal across the country, but social networks were full of discussion about the attack, with speculation that it was carried out by former Venezuelan soldiers.
The armed forces said in a statement the base was assaulted by “a group of civilian criminals wearing military uniforms and a first lieutenant who had deserted.”
Maduro said the lieutenant was among those captured, and was “actively giving information and we have testimony from seven of the civilians.”
Loyal military chiefs
Maduro praised the army for its “immediate reaction” in putting down the attack.
Venezuela’s opposition has repeatedly urged the military to abandon Maduro.
But Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, the head of the armed forces, has said the military’s loyalty was unshakable.
In a video posted online just before the attack, a man presenting himself as an army captain named Juan Caguaripano declared a “legitimate rebellion… to reject the murderous tyranny of Nicolas Maduro.”
Speaking with 15 men in camouflage standing by him, some of them armed, he demanded a transitional government and “free elections.”
It was not known if he was the lieutenant referred to in the military statement, demoted for deserting, or whether he was another renegade officer and was still free.
The military’s statement said the lieutenant had deserted three years ago and taken refuge in Miami, Florida.
Venezuela has become increasingly isolated internationally as Maduro tightens his hold on power through a contested loyalist assembly that started work last week.
The opposition, which controls the legislature, has been sidelined. Its leaders are under threat of arrest after organizing protests — fiercely countered by security forces — that have left 125 people dead in the past four months.
The new Constituent Assembly, packed with Maduro allies including the president’s wife and son, has moved quickly to clamp down on dissent.
Its first act was to dismiss the attorney general, Luisa Ortega, who had broken ranks with Maduro to become one of his most vociferous critics.
It has also created a “truth commission” that Maduro wants to use to prosecute opposition lawmakers and leaders for alleged “crimes.” He has urged the commission to lift parliamentary immunity for opposition figures.
The United States accuses Maduro of installing an “authoritarian dictatorship” that has turned Venezuela into an international pariah.
The United States, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama and Peru have slammed the “illegal” sacking of Ortega.
And Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil have indefinitely suspended Venezuela from the South American trading bloc Mercosur for its “rupture of the democratic order.”
Foreign ministers from 15 Latin American nations were to meet in Peru on Tuesday to decide what joint action they could take over Venezuela.
In a statement Monday, the European Union said Ortega’s dismissal flew in the face of Maduro’s “claims that peace and democracy would benefit” from the new assembly, and it condemned the increasing polarization of Venezuelan society.
“There is no alternative to the respect of legitimate institutions, to the separation of powers and the respect for citizens’ rights to freely express their political opinion,” said the statement from the EU’s foreign policy service.