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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 February 2019

Venezuela quells soldiers' revolt as top court blasts Congress

Nicolas Maduro's second term is seen as illegitimate by legislature and many nations

A riot policeman on a motorcycle points his gun during clashes with anti-government demonstrators in the neighborhood of Los Mecedores, in Caracas, on January 21, 2019. AFP
A riot policeman on a motorcycle points his gun during clashes with anti-government demonstrators in the neighborhood of Los Mecedores, in Caracas, on January 21, 2019. AFP

Venezuela plunged deeper into turmoil on Monday as security forces put down a pre-dawn uprising by national guardsmen and the Supreme Court moved to undercut the opposition-controlled Congress's defiant new leadership.

Socialist Party chief Diosdado Cabello said 27 guardsmen were arrested and more could be detained as the investigation unfolds.

The mutiny struck at a time when opposition leaders have regained momentum in their efforts to oust President Nicolas Maduro. They have called for a nationwide demonstration Wednesday, urging Venezuelans – especially members of the armed forces – to abandon Mr Maduro.

The uprising triggered protests in a poor neighbourhood only a few kilometres from Venezuela's presidential palace. Protesters were dispersed with teargas as residents set fire to a barricade of rubbish and chanted demands that Mr Maduro give up power.

The military said it had recovered weapons and captured those involved in what it described as "treasonous" acts motivated by "obscure interests tied to the far right".

It said that at around 2.50am, a small group of guardsmen took captive a captain in charge of a police station in western Caracas and then moved across the capital in two military trucks to the poor neighbourhood of Petare, where they stole a cache of weapons from another outpost.

Officials said 25 soldiers were quickly caught at the National Guard outpost 3 kilometres from the Miraflores presidential palace, and two more arrests were made at another location.

A few hours earlier, a group of heavily armed national guardsmen published a series of videos on social media saying they won't recognise Mr Maduro's government, which has come under increasing domestic and international pressure over a newly begun second term that the opposition-controlled congress and many nations consider illegitimate.

In one of the videos, a man identifying himself as 3rd Sgt Alexander Bandres Figueroa, addressing the "people of Venezuela", urges his compatriots to take to the streets to show support for their rebellion.

"You asked to take to the streets to defend the constitution, well here we are," he said in a video in which several heavily armed men and a national guard lorry can be seen in the background.

"You wanted us to light the fuse, so we did. We need your support," he said.

At daybreak in the adjacent neighbourhood of Cotiza, a group of shirtless young men, some with their faces covered, built a barricade across the street with a burning car, heavy sewer grates and a large chunk of concrete.

A group of women shouted that they had lived for too long without running water and that teargas fired by security forces choked their children.

"Freedom! Freedom!" they chanted. "Maduro has to go!"

"We must defend our homeland," said Maria Fernanda Rodriguez, 36, a manicurist.

Hours later, the government-stacked Supreme Court said it was throwing out recent measures by the National Assembly that declared Mr Maduro's presidency illegitimate, deepening a standoff with the legislature.

The justices ruled that the new leadership of congress is invalid, and urged the country's chief prosecutor to investigate whether congressional leaders acted criminally in defying the constitution.

Juan Guaido, 35, the newly seated president of the congress, urged the military to demand Mr Maduro abandon power.

"We are not asking you to mount a coup. We are not asking you to shoot," Mr Guaido said in a video circulated on social media. "On the contrary, we are asking you not to shoot at us, but rather to defend together with us the right of our people to be heard."

Late Monday, Colombian TV played a video showing a group of unidentified men claiming to be soldiers who are friends of Venezuela's armed forces holed up in Colombia, saying they are responding to Mr Guaido by preparing an advance into Venezuela to help restore democracy.

The video shown on NTN-TV in Bogota shows roughly two dozen men wearing combat fatigues, but unarmed.

Dozens of foreign governments have refused to recognise Mr Maduro's second term, some saying they are ready to recognise Mr Guaido as interim president until fair elections can be held.

The Trump administration is weighing tougher financial sanctions on Venezuela, while a dozen mostly conservative Latin American and Caribbean governments said they would block officials from Mr Maduro's government from entering their countries and take steps to freeze assets that are the byproduct of corruption

While discontent among Venezuelans is rising amid widespread food shortages and hyperinflation, Mr Maduro is believed to have the loyalty of his top military commanders. In the past, troops have easily put down small uprisings.

Mr Maduro was the target of an apparent assassination attempt on August 4 when two drones armed with explosives detonated near him as he spoke at a military parade. Officials have jailed dozens of suspects, including an opposition lawmaker.

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Read more:

Venezuela opposition leader Juan Guaido ‘not afraid’ after detention

Venezuela opposition calls for protest to oust Nicolas Maduro

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In June 2017, rogue police officer Oscar Perez stole a helicopter and flew it over the capital, launching grenades at the Supreme Court building. He and several comrades died in a gun battle with police after months on the lam.

Mr Cabello said the opposition demonstration expected Wednesday did not worry him, because the government would flood the streets with its own loyal supporters.

"It's the right that stirs up violence — not us," Mr Cabello said. "How many marches do we hold here every week without a single act of violence?"

Updated: January 22, 2019 11:50 AM

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