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Venezuela official: Military quashes attack at base

Published:Sunday | August 6, 2017 | 12:00 AM
A statue of Venezuelan hero Simon Bolivar with a mask made with the Venezuelan flag is seen at Chacao square in Caracas, Venezuela, on Saturday.

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Ruling party chief Diosdado Cabello said Venezuelan troops quashed a "terrorist" attack at a military base Sunday, shortly after a small group of men dressed in fatigues released a video declaring themselves in rebellion.

Cabello reported on Twitter that troops quickly contained the early morning assault at the Paramacay base in the central city of Valencia. Military officials said seven people were detained.

The announcement came after the group of men, some armed with assault rifles, announced they were disavowing the government of embattled President Nicolas Maduro and said any unit refusing to go along with their call for rebellion would be declared a military target.

"This is not a coup d'etat," a man who identified himself as Capt. Juan Caguaripano said in the video. "This is a civic and military action to re-establish the constitutional order."

Cabello, a former military man and vice president under the late President Hugo Chavez, called the attackers "mercenary terrorists." Socialist party loyalists also regularly use the term "terrorist" to describe opposition leaders and protesters.

The South American nation has for months been in the throes of a political crisis with protests that have left more than 120 dead, nearly 2,000 wounded and over 500 detained. The political standoff heightened this week with the installation of an all-powerful constitutional assembly that opposition members fear Maduro will use to tighten his grip on power, install a one-party state and remove foes from office.

Caguaripano, the leader of the alleged plot, has a history of rebellion.

In 2014, while a captain in the national guard and amid a previous wave of anti-government unrest, he released a 12-minute video denouncing Maduro. He later reportedly sought exile after a military tribunal ordered his arrest, appearing in an interview on CNN en Espanol to draw attention to dissatisfaction within the ranks over Venezuela's demise.

He returned to Venezuela to lead Sunday's uprising, said Giomar Flores, a mutinous naval officer who said he is a spokesman for the group from Bogota, Colombia.

Videos circulating on social media showed a police convoy speeding down a road amid the sound of apparent gunfire.

The Paramacay base, surrounded by a residential neighbourhood in Valencia, is one of Venezuela's largest and houses some of the country's most important armaments including Russian-made tanks.

Cabello is the first vice president of the ruling socialist party and a member of the constitutional assembly. He has been a vocal proponent of using the legislative super-body to strip lawmakers in the opposition-controlled National Assembly of the immunity from prosecution that comes with office.

While in the military he took part in a failed 1992 coup led by Chavez, and he has held various high-ranking positions in the government. U.S. officials have accused him of involvement in drug trafficking, a charge he denies.

On Twitter Sunday, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said the fact that Cabello had announced the news of the attack "shows who's in charge of security forces" in Venezuela.

Maduro is widely considered to still have the backing of the military, though it is difficult to know whether any discord may be brewing among the rank and file.

The rebellion took place a day after the constitutional assembly voted unanimously to remove the nation's chief prosecutor, a longtime government loyalist who has become one of Maduro's most outspoken critics. Delegates shouted "traitor" and "justice" as they proceeded with her removal.

Luisa Ortega refused to recognise the decision to oust her and vowed to continue fighting "with my last breath" against what she considers unconstitutional overreach by the government.

The assembly later swore in as her replacement Ombudsman Tarek William Saab, who was recently sanctioned by the Trump administration for failing to protect protesters from abuses in his role as the nation's top human rights official.

Also Saturday prominent opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez was returned home to serve his sentence under house arrest, days after being hauled back to prison in the middle of the night in a move that drew international condemnation.

The activist's wife Lilian Tintori said in a message on Twitter that she and her husband remained committed to achieving "peace and freedom for Venezuela."

Lopez was released from prison July 8 and placed under house arrest after serving three years of a 13-year sentence on charges of inciting violence at opposition rallies. Many human rights groups considered him a political prisoner.

But he was taken back into custody last Tuesday along with former Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma in what many believed was a renewed crackdown on the opposition following the election of delegates to the constitutional assembly.