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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Venezuela says five ‘terrorists’ arrested after shootout

Authorities say forces linked to self-proclaimed rogue helicopter pilot Oscar Perez were caught

Venezuelan special forces exchanged gunfire Monday with Oscar Perez, the rebellious police officer who has been on the run since leading a high-profile attack in Caracas last year. AP Photo/Fernando Llano
Venezuelan special forces exchanged gunfire Monday with Oscar Perez, the rebellious police officer who has been on the run since leading a high-profile attack in Caracas last year. AP Photo/Fernando Llano

Venezuelan authorities on Monday arrested five members of what they called a "terrorist cell" linked to helicopter pilot Oscar Perez, and killed several others during a shoot-out outside Caracas.

Mr Perez appeared with a bloody face in nearly a dozen dramatic Instagram videos on Monday, claiming he was surrounded by authorities shooting at him with grenade launchers.

State television later read out an official statement that said two police officers were shot in the clashes but did not say what had happened to Mr Perez.

A former police pilot, self-publicist Mr Perez is wanted for using a stolen helicopter to lob grenades and shoot at government buildings in June, as well as for breaking into a National Guard unit in December to steal weapons.

President Nicolas Maduro’s leftist government has described him as a “fanatic, extremist terrorist” and a manhunt has been under way for months. Some of Mr Maduro's critics have questioned whether Mr Perez’s attacks were staged in cahoots with the government to justify a crackdown on the opposition.

Authorities finally tracked Mr Perez down in the poor hillside neighbourhood of El Junquito on Monday.

“We’re wounded ... they’re killing us!” said Mr Perez in one video, wearing a bulletproof vest as he crouched in what appeared to be a small house. Gunshots were heard in the background.

“Venezuela, don’t lose hope... Now only you have power so that we can all be free,” he said in an earlier video, staring into the camera and telling his children he loves them and hopes to see them again.

His last video was posted about 10:30am local time. A Reuters witness in the area later saw an ambulance speed by and said gunshots were no longer heard.

The information ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Members of Mr Maduro’s government scoffed at Mr Perez.

“What a coward now that he’s caught like a rat!” tweeted prisons minister Iris Varela. “Where is the courage he had to attack military units, kill and injure officials and steal weapons?”

Mr Perez, who also has been an action film star and portrays himself as a James Bond or Rambo-like figure on social media, has added surreal twists to Venezuela’s long-running political drama.

He rose to fame in June after hijacking a police helicopter, flying over the centre of Caracas and firing shots at and lobbing grenades on the interior ministry and the supreme court.

Mr Perez claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was to fight what he said was a tyrannical government. He went into hiding afterward, only to reappear two weeks later at an opposition vigil for anti-government protesters killed during demonstrations that rocked the country last year.

In December, a video posted on Mr Perez’s YouTube account showed armed, masked men taking control of military barracks under cover of night.

They smashed photos of Mr Maduro and his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, handcuffed about a dozen soldiers and berated them for supporting “dictatorship” in Venezuela. Mr Perez claimed his team stole about 26 AK-103s and more than 3,000 rounds for the rifles, as well as pistols.

Opposition politicians called for due process on Monday.

“There is no death penalty in Venezuela,” tweeted opposition lawmaker Yajaira Forero. “We demand that Mr Oscar Perez’s right to life be respected. If he committed a crime he must be judged by a court, as the law establishes.”

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