CARACAS (REUTERS) – Venezuela launched a country-wide manhunt on Monday (Aug 7) for the men who assaulted an army base the day before, using state TV to flash pictures of the accused rebels who escaped with weapons after a gunfight with soldiers.
The attack came just hours after the first session of a new legislative superbody created by President Nicolas Maduro, which opponents say will cement dictatorship after months of deadly protests in the oil-rich but economically-ailing country.
Those who attacked the base near the city of Valencia said their operation was aimed at starting an insurgency against unpopular leftist Maduro. No more assaults were reported, and anti-Maduro protests in Valencia were quickly subdued, but hackers attacked dozens of state websites to show their support for the raid.
Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino said in a televised address that two of the men who attacked the base had been shot dead and eight captured. About 10 others are on the run. “This band of criminals did not act out of noble ideals or patriotic principles of any kind. They operated as mercenaries paid by extreme right-wing groups in Miami,” he said.
The leader of the attack was Juan Carlos Caguaripano, a former National Guard captain. Also involved in the assault was an army first lieutenant, who was captured, and a group of civilians who escaped along with Caguaripano. “They managed to get away. A special operation has begun for their search and capture,” Padrino said, adding that three soldiers had been wounded in the pre-dawn Sunday gunfight.
About 2,000 government supporters marched in Caracas to show support for the constituent assembly elected eight days earlier despite wide criticism from the region and globally.
More than 120 people have died in anti-government protests since April. Maduro has said the assembly is the nation’s only hope of peace but many Venezuelans say it has left them without any democratic options to oppose him.
The assembly, which is stacked with Maduro’s Socialist Party allies, used its first session to fire the country’s top prosecutor, who had accused the president of human rights abuses. The move confirmed opposition fears the body would use its vast powers to root out government critics.
Maduro’s critics have long referred to him as a dictator, especially since his loyalist Supreme Court started nullifying laws passed by the opposition-controlled Congress.
Since the assembly’s election, leaders like Donald Trump of the United States and Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia have referred to Venezuela a dictatorship as well.
The Trump administration is preparing sanctions against another group of Venezuelan officials linked to Maduro, US officials said on Monday.
The new measures, to freeze the individuals’ US assets, ban them from travel to the United States and prohibit Americans from doing business with them, could be rolled out as early as this week, one of the administration officials told Reuters.
No final decisions have yet been made on the list of new targets, which is likely to include a significant number of names, or on the exact timing of the announcement, the two officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Washington slapped sanctions on Maduro himself last week following similar action against 13 Venezuelan figures on July 26.
The next round is still expected to stop short of penalties against Venezuela’s vital oil sector, considered the toughest of possible sanctions, though such measures, US sources have said, remain under consideration.
“We want to leave room to do more if Maduro’s actions continue, not do everything and everyone who remains all with one stroke,” said one of the officials involved in the White House deliberations.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Bloomberg News first reported the new sanctions plan.
A group calling itself The Binary Guardians said on Monday it hacked about 40 state web sites. A representative told Reuters in an interview that he was a Venezuelan national but declined to give specifics about the group or his location. He they were not part of ‘Operation David’ but supported it.
The country’s CNE elections authority, which ran the July 31 vote for the new 545-member assembly, was among the sites hacked. Its website showed a flyer in favour of the base attack, and a video showing a clip from Charlie Chaplin film “The Great Dictator”.
In the clip, Chaplin gives a rousing speech against authoritarianism. “Soldiers! Don’t give yourself to brutes, men who despise you and enslave you, who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel,” Chaplin says in the speech.