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Maduro opponents warn of crackdown after blast in Venezuela

Published:Monday | August 6, 2018 | 12:00 AM
President of Venezuela Nicolas Maduro.

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP):

Opposition leaders in Venezuela warn that the government might use an apparent assassination attempt against President Nicolas Maduro as an excuse to crack down on those who legitimately oppose his policies.

Maduro was delivering a televised speech Saturday evening to hundreds of soldiers when he and his wife, Cilia Flores, looked up at the sky and winced after hearing the sound of an explosion.

Nearby residents said Sunday they saw a drone crash into a building and explode about two blocks away from where Maduro was speaking.

"This was an attempt to kill me," he said later in an impassioned retelling of the event. "Today, they attempted to assassinate me."

Maduro said the "far right", working in coordination with detractors in Bogota and Miami, including Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, was responsible. Some of the "material authors" of the apparent attack have been detained, he said.

"The investigation will get to the bottom of this," he said, "no matter who falls."

A Colombian official with the president's office described Maduro's accusation that Santos was involved as baseless.

The Broad Front opposition alliance issued a statement accusing the government of leaping to the assumption the explosions were an assassination attempt and of making "irresponsible" accusations without any proof.

"We warn that this confused event could be used as an excuse to repress the constitutional rights of the people to continue protesting for the defense of their rights," the statement said late Saturday.


Opposition blamed


Venezuela's government routinely accuses opposition activists of plotting to attack and overthrow Maduro, a deeply unpopular leader who was recently elected to a new term in office in a vote decried by dozens of nations. Maduro has steadily moved to concentrate power as the nation reels from a crippling economic crisis.

Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez said the incident took place shortly after 5:30 p.m. Saturday as Maduro was celebrating the National Guard's 81st anniversary. The visibly shaken head of state said he saw a "flying device" that exploded before his eyes. He thought it might be a pyrotechnics display in honour of the event.

Maduro said he heard a second explosion and pandemonium broke out. Bodyguards escorted Maduro from the event, and TV footage showed uniformed soldiers in formation quickly scattering from the scene.

Witnesses interviewed Sunday by The Associated Press confirmed seeing at least one drone that appeared to be linked to an explosion.

One showed a cellphone video of a drone hovering over a residential street two blocks away and then crashing into a building. While the video doesn't show an explosion, the witness said it fell and then exploded, starting a fire in the building.

Police arrested the drone pilot, the witness said. Crime scene investigators combed the building for evidence.

Another resident apparently saw the same drone. Mairum Gonzalez said she heard a thundering explosion and ran in terror to her fifth-floor balcony.

"It was so strong the building shook," she said. "I said, 'Oh, my God, what happened?' It terrified me."

Gonzalez said she next saw a drone hit the same building mentioned by the other witness and then fall. Moments later, she heard a second blast and saw black smoke. People screamed as they ran in the street below, she said.

US President Donald Trump's national security adviser John Bolton told Fox News Sunday that he can state "unequivocally" that "there was no US government involvement in this at all".