Tuesday 24 April 2018

Protests as police arrest mayor

Mitzy Capriles de Ledezma, the wife of Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, chants for the release of her husband (AP)
Mitzy Capriles de Ledezma, the wife of Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, chants for the release of her husband (AP)

Police broke into Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma's office and carted off the long-time critic of Venezuela's socialist government.

The arrest added to tensions on the anniversary of the outbreak of protests that paralysed the nation a year ago.

President Nicolas Maduro took to television and radio to say that Mr Ledezma, one of the most vocal opposition leaders, would be punished for trying to sow unrest in Venezuela, which is struggling with severe economic problems.

Emotions were already running high before dozens of men in flak jackets and camouflage uniforms smashed down the door of Mr Ledezma's office and forcibly carried him out of the building.

As news of the incursion spread across the capital, people spontaneously banged pots from their windows in protest while drivers tapped rhythms on their car horns in rush hour traffic.

As night fell, a few dozen people vented their anger in front of the headquarters of the intelligence service police, where Mr Ledezma was thought to be.

"He'll be held accountable for all his crimes," Mr Maduro said in a speech that TV and radio stations across the country were required to carry.

Last week, Mr Maduro named Mr Ledezma among government critics and Western powers he accused of plotting a coup to bring down the government.

It was one of more than a dozen such denunciations Mr Maduro has made since taking power in 2013.

Mr Ledezma mocked the accusation in multiple interviews, saying the real destabilising force in Venezuela was the government's corruption.

Tensions have been running high in Venezuela with the one-year anniversary of the start of weeks of anti-government street protests that choked the country with tear gas and smoke from flaming barricades and resulted in more than 40 deaths.

National police arrested several other mayors and former mayors during that unrest, including Leopoldo Lopez, who is considered by human rights groups as Latin America's most high-profile political prisoner.

Allies of Mr Ledezma called for more protests today to demand his immediate release, a call echoed by Human Rights Watch.

The US state department, meanwhile, called the Venezuelan government's accusations of coup-plotting "baseless and false" and said they are meant to draw attention away from mounting economic problems such as widespread shortages and inflation that reached 68% last year.

"The Venezuelan government needs to deal with the grave situation it faces," it said.

The mayor has been a thorn in the side of the ruling party since he won the post in 2008, beating a member of the socialist party led by the late president Hugo Chavez.

The government subsequently transferred nearly all of Mr Ledezma's powers, including control of police and schools, to a newly created government entity.

Mr Ledezma responded with a hunger strike that drew international attention and cemented his status as symbol for what the opposition calls the government's efforts to marginalise elected officials who do not fall in line.

His arrest was captured on surveillance video, clips of which rocketed around social media. A group of men in black and grey camouflage, wearing bulletproof vests, can be seen forcefully hustling the 59-year-old politician from his building.

Opposition politician Ismael Garcia wrote on Twitter that he saw Mr Ledezma carried away: "They took him out of his office like he was a dog."

Press Association

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