Venezuela has arrested a general and a colonel as part of a probe into an alleged attempt to assassinate President Nicolas Maduro, the Supreme Court said Tuesday.
The arrests increased suspicions about possible divisions within the military, considered a bedrock of support for the widely unpopular president as Venezuela’s economy unravels and people grow more and more desperate and angry.
Major General Alejandro Perez Gamez of the National Guard appeared before a judge on Monday along with opposition politician Juan Requesens and another military officer, Colonel Pedro Javier Zambrano, Attorney General Tarek William Saab told a press conference.
Around midnight, the Supreme Court issued a statement saying it had ordered the detention of those men and five others “for attempted aggravated homicide against the president.”
To date, 14 people have been arrested and charged for allegedly taking part in the August 4 incident in which Maduro was seen reacting on live television to an off-camera explosion while he addressed a military parade in Caracas.
A second explosion was heard and then the assembled troops could be seen breaking formation and scattering in panic.
Maduro said the blasts were from explosives-laden drones sent to assassinate him, though opposition figures accuse Maduro of fabricating the incident to step up repression.
Saab said further arrests were possible.
He said his office had requested Requesens’ bank accounts be blocked along with those of opposition parliament chairman Julio Borges, who has fled to neighbouring Colombia.
The Constituent Assembly, a powerful super-legislative body of Maduro loyalists created last year that has arrogated powers from the opposition-dominated National Assembly, last week stripped Borges and Requesens of their parliamentary immunity so they can be put on trial.
Maduro’s government has also asked Interpol to arrest Borges.
Two of those arrested, the colonel — Zambrano — and Juan Monasterios, a retired soldier, were also charged in connection with an assault on a military fort at Paramacay in August last year, in which weapons were stolen.
Authorities said opposition militant Oscar Perez, who shot to prominence during unrest in 2017 when he used a helicopter to drop grenades on the Supreme Court and interior ministry buildings, had led the attack on the fort. Perez was killed in a police assault on his hideout in January.
– Soldiers suspected –
The arrest of the general and colonel comes after the detention of several soldiers in recent months for allegedly conspiring against Maduro.
Military expert Rocio San Miguel told AFP there was a “witch hunt” against generals and other senior military officers as part of a “purge unleashed since Maduro’s rise to power.”
Within days of his controversial re-election in May in a poll boycotted by the opposition, Maduro announced the capture of a group of soldiers accused of plotting to destabilize the elections. He said they had received backing from the opposition as well as from the US and Colombian governments.
San Miguel estimates that some 200 members of the armed forces are currently in prison.
“I have the impression that there is a high degree of internal instability,” he said.
– Army loyalty –
Following the drone incident, the military high command issued a statement reiterating its “unconditional loyalty” to the president, who has overseen the collapse of his nation’s once-thriving oil-based economy.
The armed forces are considered Maduro’s main bastion of support and integral to his grip on power.
Thousands of Venezuelans flee the country daily amid widespread shortages of food and medicine, malnutrition is rife, and the International Monetary Fund is forecasting inflation to reach one million per cent this year.
Maduro has blamed the August 4 incident on “terrorist cells” in Florida led by a man called Osman Delgado Tabosky, whom he claims was behind the plot. The US state is home to a large community of Venezuelan immigrants.
Maduro said this week that he would allow FBI agents to come to Venezuela to help investigate the alleged plot.