Tuesday 16 October 2018

Maduro may use ‘drone assassination bid’ to justify crackdown, opponents warn

The Venezuelan president was delivering a televised speech on Saturday evening to hundreds of soldiers when the incident happened.

Nicolas Maduro delivers his speech as his wife Cilia Flores winces and looks up after being startled by an explosion, in Caraca (Venezolana de Television/AP)
Nicolas Maduro delivers his speech as his wife Cilia Flores winces and looks up after being startled by an explosion, in Caraca (Venezolana de Television/AP)

By Scott Smith and Christine Armario, Associated Press

Opposition leaders in Venezuela have warned that the government might use an apparent assassination attempt against President Nicolas Maduro as an excuse to crack down on legitimate dissent.

Mr Maduro was delivering a televised speech on 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 they saw a drone crash into a building and explode about two blocks away from where Mr 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.”

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

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

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

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Venezuelan forces occupy Bolivar Avenue where the government said that a drone armed with explosives detonated (Fernando Llano/AP)

The Broad Front opposition alliance accused 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 defence of their rights,” the group said.

Venezuela’s government routinely accuses opposition activists of plotting to attack and overthrow Mr Maduro, a deeply unpopular leader who was recently elected to a new term in office in a vote criticised by dozens of nations.

Mr Maduro has steadily moved to concentrate power as the nation reels from a crippling economic crisis.

We are in the midst of a wave of civil war in Venezuela

Some of the “material authors” of the apparent attack have been detained he said, adding: “The investigation will get to the bottom of this.”

Venezuela’s government routinely accuses opposition activists of plotting to attack and overthrow Mr Maduro, a deeply unpopular leader who was recently elected to a new term in office in a vote decried by dozens of nations.

He has steadily moved to concentrate power as the nation reels from a crippling economic crisis.

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A couple walks away from the venue where the government said that a drone armed with explosives detonated near Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (Fernando Llano/AP)

Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez said the incident took place shortly after 5.30pm on Saturday as Mr 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.

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

Witnesses confirmed seeing at least one drone that appeared to be linked to an explosion.

One showed a mobile phone video of a drone hovering over a residential street two blocks away and then crashing into a 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.”

US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton said that he can state “unequivocally” that “there was no US government involvement in this at all”.

At one point on Saturday, Mr Maduro asked Nr Trump to arrest the “terrorists”.

Apparently in response, Mr Bolton said, “If the government of Venezuela has hard information that they want to present to us that would show a potential violation of US criminal law, we’ll take a serious look at it.”

In the midst of near-daily protests last year, a rogue police officer flew a stolen helicopter over the capital and launched grenades at several government buildings. Oscar Perez was later killed in a deadly gun battle after over six months on the run.

Attorney General Tarek William Saab said the attempted assassination targeted not only Mr Maduro but the military’s entire high command on stage with the president.

Prosecutors have already launched their investigation and obtained critical details from the suspects in custody, said Mr Saab.

“We are in the midst of a wave of civil war in Venezuela,” he said.

Press Association

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