Venezuelan President alleges drone-based assassination attempt

VIDEO: REUTERS

CARACAS • Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said he was "more determined than ever" after he escaped an "assassination" attempt using an explosive-laden drone as he gave a speech during a Caracas military parade.

The government said seven soldiers were wounded in the alleged attack on Saturday, which was blamed on Colombia by Mr Maduro and later claimed by a mysterious rebel group.

"I am fine, I am alive, and after this attack I'm more determined than ever to follow the path of the revolution," Mr Maduro said defiantly of the incident, from which he escaped unharmed.

"Justice! Maximum punishment! And there will be no forgiveness," he warned in an address to the nation, sparking fears of an anti-opposition offensive in a country already reportedly holding some 248 political prisoners.

Attorney-General Tarek William Saab, who was at the parade, said those arrested in connection with the incident would be identified today. "There will be a ruthless punishment," he said.

During the President's speech, which was broadcast live on state television, the camera began to shake. Mr Maduro looked into the air as his wife Cilia Flores flinched, appearing frightened.

The image then showed members of the country's National Guard, who had been in formation, running to one side. Mr Maduro's voice could be heard saying: "Let's go to the right."

"It was an attack to kill me, they tried to assassinate me today," Mr Maduro said later in a state broadcast, speaking of a "flying object (that) exploded in front of me".

Communication Minister Jorge Rodriguez said there was "an explosive charge... detonated close to the presidential podium" and in several other spots along the parade held in central Caracas.

Mr Saab told CNN he saw a drone filming the event explode.

Photographs from the scene showed at least one soldier with blood pouring down his face.

A little-known group called the "National Movement of Soldiers in T-shirts" claimed responsibility for the attack.

In a series of posts on social media, the group said it had planned to fly two drones but snipers shot them down.

"We demonstrated that they are vulnerable. We didn't have success today but it's just a question of time," said the group, which says it was founded in 2014 to bring together all of Venezuela's "groups of resistance".

In a statement passed to US-based opposition journalist Patricia Poleo, who read it on her YouTube channel, the group also said: "If the purpose of a government is to achieve the greatest amount of happiness possible, we cannot tolerate that the population is suffering from hunger, that the sick do not have medicine, that the currency has no value, or that the education system neither educates nor teaches, only indoctrinating communism."

The government pointed the blame at "the ultra-right wing" - its term for the opposition.

But Mr Maduro himself said: "I have no doubt that the name (outgoing Colombian President) Juan Manuel Santos is behind this attack."

He added that investigations pointed to financial backers who "live in the United States, in the state of Florida. I hope that President Donald Trump is ready to fight these terrorist groups".

The Colombian Foreign Ministry denied involvement, saying the allegations were "absurd" and "lacked any foundations".

US National Security Adviser John Bolton also said the US was not involved. "I can say unequivocally there is no US government involvement in this at all," he told Fox News Sunday, adding that the incident could be "a pretext set up by the regime itself" of Mr Maduro "or something else".

Mr Maduro, 55, has remained in power in oil-rich Venezuela despite a collapsing economy and a long-running political crisis that has seen the country isolated internationally.

He won a new six-year term in May but his main rivals disavowed the election and alleged massive irregularities.

Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have fled due to food and medicine shortages and hyperinflation that could reach 1 million per cent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 06, 2018, with the headline 'Venezuelan President alleges drone-based assassination attempt'. Print Edition | Subscribe