Venezuela soldiers repel foes’ attack
VALENCIA, Venezuela — Soldiers battled for three hours Sunday morning against a small band of anti-government fighters who sneaked onto a Venezuelan army base, apparently intent on fomenting an uprising, President Nicolas Maduro said.
Troops killed two of the intruders, wounded another and captured seven, but 10 others got away, Maduro announced in his weekly broadcast on state television.
“We know where they are headed, and all of our military and police force is deployed,” Maduro said, adding he would ask for “the maximum penalty for those who participated in this terrorist attack.”
The incident happened during the early morning hours at the Paramacay base in the central city of Valencia. Residents who live nearby said they heard repeated bursts of gunfire starting around 4:30 a.m.
“At dawn, terrorists entered the Paramacay base in Valencia to attack our national armed forces. There are several terrorists detained,” Diosdado Cabello, a longtime government official and lawmaker who’s currently one of the highest-ranking members of Maduro’s socialist party, said on his Twitter account. “There’s absolute calm in the other military bases.”
A video showing more than a dozen men dressed in military fatigues, some carrying rifles, began circulating widely on social media around that time. In the recording, a man who identified himself as Capt. Juan Caguaripano said the men were members of the military who oppose Maduro’s government. He called on military units to declare themselves in open rebellion.
“This is not a coup d’etat,” the man said. “This is a civic and military action to re-establish the constitutional order.”
Twenty men entered the base, catching soldiers on night watch by surprise, Maduro said. The intruders managed to reach the base’s weapons depot before an alarm sounded, alerting troops to the incursion. He said 10 of the invaders then escaped, some carrying off arms, while those left behind exchanged gunfire with soldiers until about 8 a.m., when all had been either killed or captured.
“Today we had to defeat terrorism with bullets,” Maduro said.
Residents who live nearby and saw the dissident group’s video online gathered around the military base chanting “Freedom!” Other protests emerged around Valencia into the afternoon.
Troops dispersed the protesters with tear gas, and a man was fatally shot at a demonstration less than a mile from the base, said Haydee Franco, coordinating secretary of the opposition Progressive Advance party. More than 120 people have been reported killed in anti-government unrest that began in early April.
A video later showed Bolivarian Army Cmdr. Jesus Suarez Chourio — surrounded by troops he said were from the 41st Brigade on the base — declaring victory over the “mercenary paramilitary terrorist attack.”
“They assaulted us, but we suppressed them,” said Suarez Chourio, who is under U.S. sanctions for violently repressing political dissent.
Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez characterized the attackers as a “paramilitary” expedition, saying the intruders were civilians dressed in uniforms. He did not identify any of the participants, but he said they included a lieutenant who had abandoned his post. He said the man who recorded the video was a former officer dismissed three years ago after being charged with rebellion and betraying the homeland.
In 2014, Caguaripano released a 12-minute video denouncing Maduro during a previous wave of anti-government unrest. He later reportedly sought exile after a military tribunal ordered his arrest, appearing in an interview on CNN en Espanol to draw attention to what he said was discontent within military ranks.
He returned to Venezuela to lead Sunday’s uprising, said Giomar Flores, a mutinous naval officer now in Bogota, Colombia, who said he is a spokesman for the group.
It was not the first time this summer that the government had faced rebellious officers. On June 27, a rogue faction of the Venezuelan police attacked the country’s Supreme Court and the Interior Ministry from a helicopter. The group released a video in which an officer named Oscar Perez urged Venezuelans to “fight for their legitimate rights.”
No one was injured in that attack.
Analysts questioned details of Sunday’s incident. Rocio San Miguel, who studies the military in Venezuela, said in posts on her Twitter account that Caguaripano had escaped to Colombia several years ago. She also questioned why Cabello — one of Maduro’s closest allies — rather than the Padrino Lopez would have been the one to provide some of the earliest details of the incident.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who has been pushing for sanctions against Maduro’s government, said on Twitter that Cabello’s acting as a government spokesman on the incident “shows who’s in charge of security forces in Venezuela.” He called Cabello, who has long been the subject of allegations that he’s involved in drug trafficking, a “narco leader.”
Cabello responded that Rubio was the first “character” to “defend the terrorist attack.”
Padrino Lopez alleged the attackers were recruited by “right-wing extremists” working with unspecified foreign governments. Maduro said the attack was “paid for by Miami and Colombia” — areas with large numbers of Venezuelans who oppose his government. Neither provided specific details on how they had come to that conclusion.
“Today’s terrorist attack is no more than a propaganda show,” Padrino Lopez said.
Venezuela’s monthslong bout of political unrest broke out in protest to a Supreme Court decision in late March that ordered the opposition-controlled National Assembly be dissolved. Although the order was quickly annulled, near-daily demonstrations snowballed into a general protest calling for a new presidential election.
Opposition leaders have urged the military to break with Maduro over what his foes consider violations of the constitution.
But the president is believed to still have the military’s support.
In a statement, the military said it remains “monolithically united” in its “unconditional” support for Maduro.
The military plays a prominent role in Venezuela. Former President Hugo Chavez created what he called a “civilian-military union” to defend his socialist revolution and to carry out tasks such as food distribution. Padrino Lopez has repeatedly said the military supports Maduro.
As with Sunday’s uprising, most manifestations of dissent among troops have been small and isolated thus far.
“It’s still very hard to know to what extent there are significant divisions within the military,” Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based think tank Inter-American Dialogue, said recently.
The attack capped an already tense weekend during which a new constitutional assembly, which will rule with nearly unlimited powers, voted to remove chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz.
Ortega Diaz, a longtime government loyalist who has become one of Maduro’s most outspoken critics, reiterated her refusal to recognize that decision at a public appearance alongside opposition leaders Sunday.
“I am still Venezuela’s chief prosecutor,” she said to applause.
The assembly ordered her replaced by ombudsman Tarek William Saab, who was recently sanctioned by the U.S. for failing to protect protesters from abuses in his role as Venezuela’s top human-rights official.
Elsewhere, opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez returned to house arrest late Saturday, his wife, Lilian Tintori, said on her Twitter account. Venezuelan police detained Lopez and another Maduro opponent, Antonio Ledezma, at gunpoint earlier last week in the aftermath of the contentious vote for the new constitutional assembly.
In his Sunday address, Maduro defended the constitutional assembly’s right to remove Ortega Diaz, comparing it to President Donald Trump’s decision to fire acting Attorney General Sally Yates after she publicly questioned his immigration order shortly after taking office in January.
He also announced that a new “truth commission” was being installed Sunday, setting up its offices in a historic building in Caracas that also houses the Ministry of Foreign Relations. The commission will have the right to require those it summons to testify, and those who lie can be charged with perjury, the president said.
Maduro said the constitutional assembly is considering creating a law against “hate, intolerance and fascism” that would immediately punish those responsible for the current upheaval.
Maduro frequently refers to opposition leaders and protesters as “fascists.”
The president singled out Julio Borges, the leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, warning him, “Justice is coming for you and the terrorists you’ve helped advance.”
A man confronts a line of Venezuelan national guardsmen Sunday outside the Paramacay military base in the city of Valencia near Caracas, where armed assailants reportedly were repelled after a pre-dawn attack.