Venezuelan President condemns helicopter 'terror attack' on Supreme Court
Venezuela's president has said a stolen police helicopter fired on the country's Supreme Court in what he called a thwarted "terrorist attack" aimed at ousting him from power.
The confusing exchange took place as Nicolas Maduro was speaking live on state television to pro-government journalists.
More than hour after the flyover ended, he told the audience that the helicopter had fired on the court with grenades.
He said the nation's air defence was activated and one of the grenades did not explode, preventing any loss of life.
"It could have caused a tragedy with several dozen dead and injured," said Mr Maduro, who sounded alternately calm and angry as he told the audience about what had happened in the airspace just beyond the presidential palace where they were gathered.
Adding to the intrigue, pictures of a blue police helicopter carrying an anti-government banner appeared on social media around the same time as a video in which a police pilot, identified as Oscar Perez, called for a rebellion against Mr Maduro's "tyranny" as part of a coalition of members of the security forces.
"We have two choices: be judged tomorrow by our conscience and the people or begin today to free ourselves from this corrupt government," the man said while reading from a statement with four people dressed in military fatigues, ski masks and carrying what looked like assault rifles standing behind him
Later, information minister Ernesto Villegas read a statement saying the helicopter fired 15 shots at his ministry as a reception was taking place for 80 people.
It then flew a short distance to the government-stacked supreme court, which was in session, and launched what he said were four Israeli-made grenades of "Colombian origin", two of them against national guardsmen protecting the building.
The president of the high court said there were no injuries from the attack and the area was still being surveyed for damages.
Mr Villegas said security forces were being sent to arrest Perez, who the government accused of working under the instructions of the CIA and the US embassy in Caracas, as well as recover the helicopter.
Meanwhile many of Mr Maduro's opponents took to social media to accuse the president of orchestrating an elaborate ruse to justify a crackdown against Venezuelan seeking to block his plans to rewrite the constitution.
Venezuela has been rocked by anti-government protests during the past three months that have left at least 75 people dead and hundreds injured.
Mr Maduro said one of the pilots involved in the alleged attack used to fly for his former interior minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres, who he accused of working for the CIA.
Mr Rodriguez Torres, who has been leading a campaign against Mr Maduro made up of left-wing supporters of the late Hugo Chavez, dismissed the accusation as baseless.
The helicopter incident capped a volatile 24 hours that began with widespread looting in the coastal city of Maracay on Monday night and continued on Tuesday when opposition MPs got into a heated scuffle with security forces assigned to protect the National Assembly.
At least 68 supermarkets, pharmacies and off-licences were looted and several government offices burned following anti-government protests in Maracay, about a 90-minute drive from Caracas.
Mr Maduro condemned the violence but with a stern warning to his opponents likely to only further inflame an already tense situation.
"We will never surrender. And what we couldn't accomplish through votes we will with weapons," he said.
On Tuesday opposition MPs fought with national guardsmen as they tried to enter the National Assembly.
At nightfall, a few dozen people were still gathered inside the neo-classical building as pro-government supporters stood outside, threatening violence.
As the drama was unfolding outside the court, magistrates were busy issuing a number of rulings further hemming in the opposition.
One dismissed a challenge against Mr Maduro's plans for a constitutional assembly by chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz, a longtime loyalist who broke with the government over the issue.
Another broadened the powers of the nation's ombudsman, giving him the authority to carry out criminal investigations that until now had been the exclusive prerogative of Mr Ortega's office.