Con­fu­sion reigns af­ter he­li­copter strafes key build­ings

The Washington Times Daily - - WORLD - BY JOSHUA GOOD­MAN

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.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

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