Venezuela government and rebellious soldiers both claim victory in base attack
A small group of men staged a pre-dawn assault on an army base in Venezuela on Sunday, making off with weapons and declaring themselves in rebellion against the beleaguered government of President Nicolás Maduro.
Government officials and a spokesman for the rebellious soldiers offered conflicting versions of events at the Paramacay military base in Valencia, each side declaring victory.
Maduro, whose socialist government has come under widespread condemnation for moves seen as attempts to strengthen its grip on power, said 20 men stormed the base shortly before 4am. Sentries were caught off guard and the attackers made for the base’s weapons supply, he said.
Speaking on his weekly television programme, Maduro said loyal soldiers “responded with the assault rifles of the homeland”, killing two attackers and wounding another. Seven others were arrested and 10 escaped, he said, adding: “They are being actively searched for.”
Live footage from residential buildings facing the Paramacay base showed military and civilian helicopters flying low over wooded areas for much of the morning. Detonations were heard in the distance. Of those rebels who did not escape, according to Maduro, only one was a military officer and he had deserted a few months ago.
Gen Suárez Chourio, the army chief, said in a video statement the attackers had been “detained and defeated” and that “peace has triumphed”.
However, Capt Juan Caguaripano, the apparent leader of the rebellion, said on Twitter “the objectives were achieved satisfactorily in coalition with comrades of different components of the armed forces”.
Early on Sunday, Caguaripano launched a video on social media in which he declared a rebellion against the government.
Sgt Giomar Flores, who defected from the Venezuelan navy in June and is now living as a refugee in Colombia, told the Guardian “Operation David”, in which he said he was involved, had been a “complete success”.
“We took four battalions and one put up resistance,” said Flores, who claims to be in direct contact with the rebellious troops. He denied that any had been killed or captured. “That’s a lie,” he said.
Flores claimed that attackers made off with a “large amount of weapons”, mostly AK-103 assault rifles. He described the operation as the first phase of a broader military movement that has elements within the Venezuelan military and in units outside the country.
“The mission of the movement is to recover the institutional thread of Venezuela and for the armed forces to return to their mission as established in the constitution,” he said.
Civilians near the base spilled on to the streets in apparent support for the dissident troops. Minor clashes between civilians and national guard units posted outside the base were reported.
In the video statement, Caguaripano said the action was not a coup d’etat: “This is a civic and military action to re-establish the constitutional order. But, more than that, it is to save the country from total destruction. We demand the immediate formation of a transition government.”
In 2014, amid a wave of anti-government protests, Caguaripano, a captain in the national guard, released a 12-minute video denouncing Maduro. He reportedly sought exile in the US after a military tribunal ordered his arrest.
The Venezuelan military top brass has been widely seen as loyal to the government, in part because Maduro has named active and retired officers to key government posts. But analysts have speculated how long that support can hold under immense international and domestic pressure for a change of leadership, amid crippling shortages of basic goods, including food and medicines, rampant inflation and uncontrolled crime.
Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have fled the country as the crisis has deepened and repression against political opponents and human rights defenders has increased.
The assault took place a day after the opening session of a new super-powerful constituent assembly, which dozens of countries and the Venezuelan opposition have called illegitimate, saying it serves only to support a Maduro “dictatorship” by bypassing the opposition-controlled legislature.
As its first act, the assembly dismissed the nation’s chief prosecutor, Luisa Ortega, a long-time government loyalist who broke with Maduro and has become one of the government’s sharpest critics.
Delegates 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.
Ortega said her dismissal was not legitimate. “I do not recognise that removal [from office],” she said in a speech on Sunday. “I am still the chief prosecutor of this country.”
The US, which has imposed sanctions on Maduro, called Ortega’s sacking illegal, a state department spokeswoman saying it was aimed at tightening the “authoritarian dictatorship of [the] Maduro regime”.
Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama and Peru also slammed the decision. Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay announced Venezuela’s indefinite suspension from the South American trading bloc Mercosur for its “rupture of the democratic order”.
“The countries of the region … must continue to tell the Venezuelan regime that in the Americas, there is no place for dictatorships or for the tyrants that lead them,” the secretariat of the Organization of American States (OAS) said in a statement.
More than 100 people have been killed, nearly 2,000 wounded and more than 500 detained in months of anti-government protests.
Two prominent opposition leaders, Antonio Ledezma and Leopoldo López, were taken from their homes by intelligence agents last week, then returned to house arrest on Thursday and Saturday respectively.
The opposition has vowed to maintain street protests against the assembly but rallies grew more muted this week as the assembly vowed to go after those seen as inciting street action.