VALENCIA • Venezuela's military was hunting a group of "mercenaries" yesterday who made off with weapons after an attack on an army base carried out against what they called the "murderous tyranny" of President Nicolas Maduro.
The 20 men, led by an army officer who had deserted, battled troops in the base in the country's third city of Valencia for three hours on Sunday, officials said.
The raid ended with two of the attackers being killed and eight captured, Mr Maduro said on state television.
The other 10 escaped with weapons taken from the facility, according to officials who said an "intense search" was under way for them. Mr Maduro claimed the "terrorist" group had ties to Colombia and the United States.
The incident heightened fears that Venezuela's deepening political and economic crisis could explode into greater violence, perhaps open armed conflict. Officials insisted later that all was normal across the country.
Military helicopters flew overhead and tactical armoured vehicles patrolled the streets in Valencia, a major north-western city, in a climate of tension on Sunday after the early-morning attack.
Locals said a night-time curfew was imposed. Police dispersed protesters who had set up flaming barricades across the roads.
The armed forces said in a statement "a group of civilian criminals wearing military uniforms and a first lieutenant who had deserted" carried out the attack.
Mr Maduro said the lieutenant, among those captured, was "actively giving information and we have testimony from seven of the civilians".
He also congratulated the army for its "immediate reaction" in putting down the attack, saying they earned his "admiration".
Venezuela's opposition has repeatedly urged the military to abandon Mr Maduro, but Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino, the head of the armed forces, has said the military's loyalty was unshakeable.
In a video posted online just before the attack, a man presenting himself as an army captain named Juan Caguaripano declared a "legitimate rebellion... to reject the murderous tyranny of Nicolas Maduro".
Speaking with 15 men in camouflage standing by him, some of them armed, he demanded a transitional government and "free elections". It was not known if he was the lieutenant referred to in the military statement, demoted for deserting, or whether he was another renegade officer.
The new Constituent Assembly, packed with Maduro allies including the President's wife and son, has quickly used its supreme powers to clamp down on dissent after starting work this week.
"Each step by the Constituent Assembly is a step towards the precipice by this government," the leader of the opposition-controlled legislature, Mr Julio Borges, told a news conference in Caracas on Sunday.
"The only thing it has left is brute force... The only thing it wants is to cling to power," he said, calling for more protests.