Venezuela hunts rogue helicopter
attackers, Maduro foes suspicious
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[June 29, 2017]
By Andrew Cawthorne and Victoria Ramirez
CARACAS (Reuters) - The Venezuelan
government hunted on Wednesday for rogue policemen who attacked key
installations by helicopter, but critics of President Nicolas Maduro
suspected the raid may have been staged to justify repression.
In extraordinary scenes over Caracas around sunset on Tuesday, the
stolen helicopter fired shots at the Interior Ministry and dropped
grenades on the Supreme Court, both viewed by Venezuela's opposition as
bastions of support for a dictator.
Nobody was injured.
Officials said special forces were seeking Oscar Perez, 36, a police
pilot named as the mastermind of the raid by the helicopter that carried
a banner saying "Freedom!"
In 2015, Perez co-produced and starred in "Death Suspended," an action
film in which he played the lead role as a government agent rescuing a
There was no sign on Wednesday of Perez, whom officials condemned as a
"psychopath", but the helicopter was found on Venezuela's northern
"We ask for maximum support to find this fanatic, extremist terrorist,"
vice president Tareck El Aissami said.
The attack exacerbated an already full-blown political crisis in
Venezuela after three months of opposition protests demanding general
elections and fixes for the sinking economy.
At least 76 people have died in the unrest since April, the latest a
25-year-old man shot in the head near a protest in the Petare slum of
Caracas, authorities said on Wednesday.
Hundreds more people have been injured and arrested in what Maduro terms
an ongoing coup attempt with U.S. encouragement.
The attack fed a conspiracy theory by opposition supporters that it may
have been a government setup and overshadowed other drama on Tuesday,
including the besieging of opposition legislators by gangs in the
The helicopter raid also coincided with a judicial measure weakening the
powers of dissident chief state prosecutor Luisa Ortega, who has emerged
as a major challenger to Maduro.
"It seems like a movie," said Julio Borges, leader of the
opposition-controlled legislature, of the helicopter raid.
"Some people say it is a set-up, some that it is real ... Yesterday was
full of contradictions ... A thousand things are happening, but I
summarize it like this: a government is decaying and rotting, while a
nation is fighting for dignity."
Though Perez posted a video on social media showing himself in front of
four hooded armed men and claiming to represent a coalition of security
and civilian officials rising up against "tyranny," there was no
evidence of deeper support.
The government, however, accused the policemen of links to the CIA and
to Miguel Rodriguez, a former interior minister and intelligence chief
under Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chavez, who recently broke with
"I'm not at all convinced by the helicopter incident," Rodriguez told
Reuters on Wednesday, saying the figures behind Perez in the video
looked like dummies and expressing surprise the helicopter could fly
freely and also not injure anyone.
"Conclusion: a cheap show. Who gains from this? Only Nicolas for two
reasons: to give credibility to his coup d'etat talk, and to blame
Rodriguez," he added, referring to himself.
[to top of second column]
Police official Oscar Perez poses for photographs during an event
of the Body of Scientific, Penal and Criminal Investigation (CICPC)
in Caracas, Venezuela March 1, 2015. REUTERS/Christian Veron
Around the time of the attack, the pro-government Supreme Court
expanded the role of the state ombudsman, a human rights guarantor
who is closely allied with Maduro, by giving him powers previously
held only by the state prosecutor's office.
Opposition leaders described that as an attempt to supplant chief
prosecutor Ortega, who has confronted both Maduro and the Supreme
Court this year after splitting ranks.
The Supreme Court on Wednesday evening said it approved a measure
blocking Ortega from leaving the country, freezing her bank
accounts, and summoning her to a July 4 hearing to discuss whether
she has committed "serious offenses."
Adding to Venezuela's tinder-box atmosphere, opposition supporters
again took to the streets nationwide on Wednesday to barricade
One opposition lawmaker, Juan Guaido, filmed himself bleeding from
wounds he said were inflicted by rubber bullets.
Opposition supporters hope that cracks within government may swing
the crisis their way, and have been delighted to see heavyweights
like Ortega and Rodriguez oppose Maduro.
Their main focus is to stop a July 30 vote called by Maduro to form
a super-body known as a Constituent Assembly, with powers to rewrite
the constitution and supersede other institutions. Maduro says the
assembly is the only way to bring peace to Venezuela, but opponents
say it is a sham vote intended solely to keep an unpopular
government in power.
"We can't let July 30 happen, we mustn't," said children's health
worker Rosa Toro, 52, blocking a road with friends. "We're being
governed by criminals, traffickers and thieves," added lawyer Matias
Perez, 40, protesting with a plastic trumpet.
Government officials lined up on Wednesday to condemn the helicopter
attack, insisting it was the work of a few individuals and not
representative of wider dissent.
Foreign Minister Samuel Moncada complained about the lack of
international condemnation of the attack, saying it contrasted with
the barrage of foreign criticism of the government.
"In Europe it's now eight at night, but we've not had any reaction
from European Union countries," he said of a bloc that has been
strongly critical of Maduro in recent months.
The minister rejected accusations that the attack was carried out by
the government for its own purposes.
"Who can believe we are that sophisticated? Sending someone to throw
grenades, who can believe that?" he asked.
(Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea, Silene Ramirez, Brian
Ellsworth, Herbert Villaraga, Diego Ore, Corina Pons and Girish
Gupta; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Andrew Hay)
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