Friday 20 April 2018

Venezuelan opposition leaders arrested as crisis escalates

FILE - In this combo of two file photos, Venezuela's opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez greets supporters outside his home in Caracas, Venezuela and Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma (AP Photos/Fernando Llano, Eraldo Peres, File)
FILE - In this combo of two file photos, Venezuela's opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez greets supporters outside his home in Caracas, Venezuela and Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma (AP Photos/Fernando Llano, Eraldo Peres, File)
A demonstrator is detained at a rally during a strike called to protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, July 27, 2017 . REUTERS/Marco Bello/File Photo
Opposition students march next to national guards during a march against President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, February 12, 2015. Venezuelan troops blocked students during marches against President Nicolas Maduro on Thursday as pro-government supporters also rallied on the anniversary of 2014 protests that led to 43 deaths. REUTERS/Jorge Silva/File Photo

Michael Weissenstein

Teams of heavily armed security agents seized two of Venezuela's senior opposition leaders from their homes in the middle of the night, dragging one into the street in his pyjamas.

The arrests came as President Nicolas Maduro's government defied US sanctions and international condemnation of a plan to assume nearly unlimited powers.

Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma were being held at the Ramo Verde military prison south of the capital Caracas.

They are accused by the government-allied Supreme Court of violating the terms of their house arrest by plotting to escape and releasing video statements criticising Mr Maduro.

Both men's allies denied the charges and vowed to continue to try to push the ruling party from power.

Mr Lopez's supporters released a video he taped last week saying he expected to be imprisoned again soon, and calling on Venezuelans to be firm in resisting Mr Maduro.

"If you are looking at this video now, it's precisely because that occurred, because they came and they illegally imprisoned me again unjustly ... a prisoner for my ideas, a prisoner for wanting a better Venezuela," the 46-year-old said.

He also said that his wife, Lilian Tintori, is pregnant, touching her belly and saying he has "one more reason to fight for Venezuela".

Mr Maduro appeared undeterred in his plans to seat a special assembly this week with powers to rewrite the country's constitution and override any other branch of the Venezuelan government.

He has threatened to use those powers to go after his opponents and the arrests on Tuesday appeared to show he was willing to proceed with full force.

The president appears to have the full support of the country's most important institutions, and the capital was unusually quiet after months of sometimes violent protests.

Venezuela's powerful vice president, whom the US has accused of drug trafficking, said the newly elected constituent assembly would be convening "within hours".

Tareck El Aissami said that results from Sunday's election have been reviewed and the 545 assembly members would soon take the reins of the nation's government.

Venezuela's defence minister, General Vladimir Padrino Lopez, affirmed his loyalty to Mr Maduro.

"We ask for respect for our democracy, for the way in which we have decided to take the road that we deserve to take in peace, in democracy, with tolerance, without violence and without heading toward a coup," he said.

Mr Lopez was released from the Ramo Verde prison on July 8 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.

Mr Ledezma, 62, was also detained in 2015 and has been under house arrest. Like Mr Lopez, he also recently posted a video denouncing Sunday's vote.

Shortly after midnight, black-clad members of Venezuela's state security force forced Mr Ledezma from his east Caracas home in his blue pyjamas, yanking him out into the night as a woman screamed for help.

Mr Lopez's wife posted security-camera video of him being taken from their home and bundled into a waiting car.

Tensions escalated in Venezuela after government-allied electoral authorities said more than eight million people voted on Sunday and the turnout was disputed by the opposition and independent analysts and condemned by many nations in the region and beyond.

On Monday, the Trump administration added Mr Maduro to a growing list of high-ranking Venezuelan officials targeted by financial sanctions.

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson said on Tuesday that the administration was "evaluating all of our policy options as to what can we do to create a change of conditions where either Maduro decides he doesn't have a future, and wants to leave of his own accord, or we can return the government processes back to their constitution".

The French, British, Spanish and Mexican ambassadors to Venezuela visited the opposition-controlled National Assembly on Tuesday and met MPs as a show of support.

Press Association

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