CARACAS (REUTERS, AFP, NYTIMES) – A Venezuelan police helicopter strafed the Supreme Court and a government ministry on Tuesday (June 27), escalating the Opec nation’s political crisis in what President Nicolas Maduro called an attack by “terrorists” seeking a coup.
The aircraft fired 15 shots at the Interior Ministry, where scores of people were at a social event, and dropped four grenades on the court, where judges were meeting, officials said. However, there were no reports of injuries.
Maduro did not say when the alleged attack is supposed to have occurred. Venezuelan government officials said a rogue faction of the Venezuelan police attacked the country’s Supreme Court.
“Sooner rather than later we are going to capture the helicopter and those behind this armed terrorist attack against the institutions of the country,” he said.
It was a rare uprising by government personnel in a country that has been on edge from mass protests and economic crises.
The 54-year-old socialist leader has faced three months of protests from opposition leaders who decry him as a dictator who has wrecked a once-prosperous economy. There has been growing dissent too from within government and the security forces.
Maduro said he has put the military on alert to respond to the alleged assault. “I have activated the entire armed forces to defend the peace,” he said in remarks delivered from the Miraflores presidential palace.
At least 75 people have died, and hundreds more been injured and arrested, in the anti-government unrest since April.
Demonstrators are demanding general elections, measures to alleviate a brutal economic crisis, freedom for hundreds of jailed opposition activists, and independence for the opposition-controlled National Assembly legislature.
Maduro says they are seeking a coup against him with the encouragement of a US government eager to gain control of Venezuela’s oil reserves, the largest in the world.
Witnesses reported hearing several detonations in downtown Caracas, where the pro-Maduro Supreme Court, the presidential palace and other key government buildings are located.
Venezuela’s government said in a communique the helicopter was stolen by an investigative police pilot called Oscar Perez, who declared himself in rebellion against Maduro.
A video posted on Perez’ Instagram account around the same time showed him standing in front of several hooded armed men, saying an operation was underway to restore democracy. Perez said in the video he represented a coalition of military, police and civilian officials opposed to the “criminal” government, urged Maduro’s resignation and called for general elections. “This fight is ... against the vile government. Against tyranny,” he said.
Another video shot from a window and posted on Twitter shows a helicopter swooping in a circle around a building as explosions are heard.
It was not clear where the attackers were Tuesday night or how much support, if any, they had.
Opponents to Maduro view the Interior Ministry as a bastion of repression and also hate the Supreme Court for its string of rulings bolstering the president’s power and undermining the opposition-controlled legislature.
“There was a social activity going on in the Supreme Court. They could have caused dozens of deaths,” Maduro said of the helicopter attack.
Opposition leaders have long been calling on Venezuela’s security forces to stop obeying a president they call a murderous dictator.
But there was also some speculation on social media among opposition supporters that the helicopter attack could have been staged to justify repression or cover up drama at Venezuela’s National Assembly, where two dozen lawmakers said they were being besieged by pro-government gangs.
Earlier on Tuesday, Maduro warned that he and supporters would take up arms if his socialist government was violently overthrown by opponents who have been on the streets since April.
“If Venezuela was plunged into chaos and violence and the Bolivarian Revolution destroyed, we would go to combat. We would never give up, and what couldn’t be done with votes, we would do with arms, we would liberate the fatherland with arms,” he said.
Maduro, who replaced Hugo Chavez in 2013, is pushing a July 30 vote for a special super-body called a Constituent Assembly, which could rewrite the national charter and supersede other institutions such as the opposition-controlled congress.
He has touted the assembly as the only way to bring peace to Venezuela. But opponents, who want to bring forward the next presidential election scheduled for late 2018, say it is a sham poll designed purely to keep the socialists in power.
They are boycotting the vote, and protesting daily on the streets to try and have it stopped. Opposition leaders call Maduro a tyrant who has wrecked a once-prosperous economy, while he calls them violent coup leaders following US orders.
Maduro, who accuses Washington of seeking to control the nation’s oil wealth, said the “destruction” of Venezuela would lead to a huge refugee wave dwarfing the Mediterranean crisis. “Listen, President Donald Trump,” he said earlier on Tuesday. “You would have to build 20 walls in the sea, a wall from Mississippi to Florida, from Florida to New York, it would be crazy ... You have the responsibility: stop the madness of the violent Venezuelan right wing.”
Opposition to the July 30 vote has come not just from Venezuelan opposition parties, but also from the chief state prosecutor Luisa Ortega and one-time government heavyweights like former intelligence service boss Miguel Rodriguez.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Rodriguez criticised Maduro for not holding a referendum prior to the Constituent Assembly election, as his predecessor Chavez had done in 1999. “This is a country without government, this is chaos,” he said.
“The people are left out ... They (the government) are seeking solutions outside the constitution ... That deepens the crisis.” Maduro said an ex-pilot of Rodriguez was involved in Tuesday’s helicopter attack.