Fri, Jun 30, 2017 - Page 7 News List

Venezuela hunts for pilot behind helicopter attack

AP, CARACAS

An anti-government protester aims a mortar containing a firework in Caracas on Wednesday.

Photo: AP

Oscar Perez is a police officer, pilot, action movie star and dog trainer. He is now also a fugitive, accused of strafing two key Venezuelan government buildings from a helicopter in a quixotic attempt to set off a revolt against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

Venezuelan authorities on Wednesday conducted a nationwide manhunt for Perez a day after the government charged that he stole the police chopper, then directed grenades and gunfire against the Venezuelan Supreme Court and Ministry of the Interior in what Maduro called a “terrorist attack.”

No one was injured and there was no sign of damage at the buildings.

However, the episode added another layer of intrigue to a three-month-old political crisis that has left at least 75 people dead and hundreds more jailed or injured in clashes between security forces and protesters seeking Maduro’s removal.

Julio Borges, president of the opposition-controlled Venezuelan National Assembly, expressed doubts about Maduro’s version of events, but added that he and the rest of the opposition were still analyzing what happened.

“There are people who say it was a government-staged hoax, others who say it was real,” Borges said in a radio interview. “Whatever it was, it all points in the same direction: That the situation in Venezuela is unsustainable.”

The Venezuelan government accused Perez and others in the helicopter of firing 15 shots at the ministry as a reception was taking place for 80 people.

It then flew a short distance to the court, which was in session, and dropped grenades, two of them against national guardsmen protecting the building.

The helicopter was later found near the coast in Vargas state not far from Caracas, and elite special forces were deployed there to press the hunt, Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami said.

Photographs of the pilot standing in front of the US Capitol in Washington and a US Coast Guard helicopter were shown on state television to bolster the Venezuelan government’s case that he was taking instructions from the CIA and the US embassy in Venezuela.

“The magistrates of the Supreme Court and other judges of the nation are under a terrorist threat, for which we will request the appropriate measures to safeguard our integrity and that of our institutions,” the Venezuelan high court said in a statement read by Maikel Moreno, the tribunal’s president.

As the drama was unfolding outside the court, inside magistrates were issuing a number of rulings further blocking the opposition.

One broadened the powers of staunchly pro-government ombudsman Tarek William Saab, allowing him to carry out criminal investigations that are the exclusive prerogative of Venezuelan Chief Prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz, who has become a strong critic of Maduro.

A defiant Ortega accused Maduro of carrying out “state terrorism” and said she would not recognize three new rulings she portrayed as a brazen attempt to eliminate her position as the country’s top law enforcement official.

“These rulings are giving the power to investigate human rights abuses to people who possibly are violating those rights,” she said in her strongest remarks since breaking with Maduro over a ruling stripping the opposition-controlled legislature of its last powers.

Hours later, the government-stacked Supreme Court announced it was barring Ortega from leaving the country and freezing her bank accounts to ensure a complaint filed by a socialist party lawmaker against her can proceed.

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