Confusion reigns after helicopter strafes key buildings
CARACAS, VENEZUELA | Oscar Perez is a cop, pilot, action movie star and dog trainer. He’s now also a fugitive, accused of strafing two key Venezuelan government buildings from a helicopter in a confused, quixotic attempt to set off a revolt against embattled leftist President Nicolas Maduro.
Authorities on Wednesday conducted a nationwide manhunt for Mr. Perez a day after the government charged that he stole the police chopper and directed grenades and gunfire against the Supreme Court and Interior Ministry in what Mr. Maduro called a “terrorist attack.”
No one was injured, and there was no sign of damage at the buildings. But the episode added another layer of intrigue to a 3-month-old political crisis that has left at least 75 people dead and hundreds more jailed or injured in clashes between security forces and protesters seeking the president’s removal in the face of a searing economic collapse.
Did Mr. Perez act alone? Are other military uprisings in the works? Or was it an elaborate ruse clumsily orchestrated by the government to distract public attention or justify a tougher crackdown on the opposition?
National Assembly President Julio Borges expressed doubts about Mr. Maduro’s version of events, but cautioned that he and the rest of the opposition were still analyzing what happened.
“There are people who say it was a government-staged hoax, others who say it was real,” he said in a radio interview. “Whatever it was, it all points in the same direction: that the situation in Venezuela is unsustainable.”
Little is known about Mr. Perez. On his Instagram account, he notes his job as a police investigator and tactical helicopter pilot and says his passion is Venezuela.
In 2015, he starred in a film called “Suspended Death,” and several photos show him in fatigues, bearing assault rifles, skydiving and standing in action poses with a German shepherd by his side.
Sometime Tuesday, he posted on his Instagram account a video in which he read a manifesto calling for rebellion. He claimed to speak on behalf of a coalition of renegade members of the security forces.
Eyewitness accounts say a large banner hung from the side of the helicopter referring to Article 350 of Venezuela’s constitution, which empowers Venezuelans to disobey any regime that violates human rights.
“We have two choices: Be judged tomorrow by our conscience and the people or begin today to free ourselves from this corrupt government,” Mr. Perez said while reading from the manifesto in front of four figures dressed in fatigues and ski masks and carrying assault rifles.
The government accused Mr. Perez and others in the helicopter of firing 15 shots at the Interior Ministry as a reception was taking place for 80 people. It then flew a short distance to the court, which was in session, and dropped grenades, two of them against national guardsmen protecting the building.
The helicopter was later found near the coast in Vargas state not far from Caracas, and elite special forces were deployed there to press the hunt, Vice President Tareck El Aissami said.
Photos of the pilot standing in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington and a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter were shown on state television to bolster the government’s case that he was taking instructions from the CIA and the U.S. Embassy.
“The magistrates of the Supreme Court and other judges of the nation are under a terrorist threat, for which we will request the appropriate measures to safeguard our integrity and that of our institutions,” the high court said in a statement read by Maikel Moreno, the tribunal’s president.
In Washington, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley warned that the situation in Venezuela is spinning out of control, and said the government was responsible for the chaos.
Mr. Maduro “is blaming the protesters for trying to overthrow his government when all they want is true democracy,” she told a congressional committee.
The last 24 hours in Venezuela have been volatile, beginning with looting in Maracay on Monday and continued Tuesday with a police helicopter firing on the Supreme Court and Interior Ministry while opposition lawmakers scuffled with security forces.