Venezuela hunts rogue helicopter attackers, Maduro foes smell rat

CARACAS, June 28 (Reuters) - The Venezuelan government hunted on Wednesday for rogue policemen who attacked key installations by helicopter, but critics of President Nicolas Maduro suspected the raid may have been manipulated to justify repression.

In extraordinary scenes over Caracas around sunset on Tuesday, the stolen helicopter fired shots at the Interior Ministry and dropped grenades on the Supreme Court, both viewed by Venezuela's opposition as bastions of support for a dictator.

Nobody was injured and the aircraft, identified by the government as an Airbus Bolkow 105, apparently referring to the Messerschmitt-Bolkow-Blohm Bo 105, was gone.

RELATED: Elderly Venezuelans protest against the government

19 PHOTOS
Elderly Venezuelans protest against the government
See Gallery
Elderly Venezuelans protest against the government
A nun (R) confronts riot security forces while rallying against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Riot security forces uses a pepper spray as elderly opposition supporters confront them while rallying against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Elderly opposition supporters cover their faces after being pepper sprayed while confronting riot security forces during a rally against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Marco Bello
Elderly opposition supporters rally against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Opposition supporters confront riot security forces while rallying against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Opposition supporters rally against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
A police officer tries to calm the people down as elderly opposition supporters rally against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Opposition supporters rally against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Opposition supporters confront riot security forces while rallying against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Elderly opposition supporters confront riot security forces while rallying against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Marco Bello
Opposition supporters confront riot security forces while rallying against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Elderly opposition supporters confront security forces while rallying against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
An opposition supporter confronts riot security forces with a sign that reads "No more repression" during a rally against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Elderly opposition supporters confront riot security forces while rallying against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Riot security forces uses a pepper spray as elderly opposition supporters confront them while rallying against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
An opposition supporter in a wheelchair carries a sign with a Venezuela's constitution glued to it and that reads "Do not change it, obey it!" while rallying against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Christian Veron
Elderly opposition supporters confront riot security forces while rallying against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Opposition supporters confronts riot security forces while rallying against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

Officials said special forces were seeking Oscar Perez, 36, a police pilot named as the mastermind of the raid by the helicopter that carried a banner saying "Freedom!"

In 2015, Perez co-produced and starred in "Death Suspended," an action film based on real events in which he played the lead role as a government agent rescuing a kidnapped businessman.

There was no sign on Wednesday of Perez, described by officials as a "psychopath," though police sources said the helicopter was dumped in Higuerote, on the Caribbean coast.

The attack exacerbated an already full-blown political crisis in Venezuela after three months of opposition protests demanding general elections and fixes for the sinking economy.

At least 75 people have died since April, with hundreds more arrested and injured in what Maduro terms an ongoing coup attempt with U.S. encouragement.

RELATED: Massive Venezuelan demonstrations

15 PHOTOS
Venezuela protests
See Gallery
Venezuela protests
Opposition supporters rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela April 20, 2017. REUTERS/Christian Veron TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Opposition supporters clash with riot police while rallying against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, April 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Opposition supporters rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, April 20, 2017. REUTERS/Marco Bello TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles (C) and supporters rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, April 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Opposition supporters clash with police during protests against unpopular leftist President Nicolas Maduro in San Cristobal, Venezuela April 19, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A demonstrator knees in front of riot police during a rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela April 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro uses binoculars during a rally in Caracas, Venezuela April 19, 2017. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A demonstrator throws back a tear gas grenade while clashing with riot police during the so-called "mother of all marches" against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela April 19, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Demonstrators clash with riot police during the so-called "mother of all marches" against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela April 19, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Demonstrators clash with riot police during the so-called "mother of all marches" against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela April 19, 2017. REUTERS/Marco Bello TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An injured demonstrators is been helped by another protester after clashing with riot police during the so-called "mother of all marches" against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela April 19, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A demonstrator wears a homemade gas mask while rallying against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A demonstrator uses a slingshot while clashing with riot police during a rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A demonstrator throws a molotov cocktail while clashing with riot police during a rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

"It's a terrorist attack that is part of an insurrectional offensive by Venezuelan right-wing extremists with the support of foreign governments and powers," said a Venezuelan government communique on the helicopter raid.

The attack fed a conspiracy theory by opposition supporters that it may have been a government setup and overshadowed other drama on Tuesday, including the besieging of opposition legislators by gangs in the National Assembly.

The helicopter raid also coincided with a judicial measure weakening the powers of dissident chief state prosecutor Luisa Ortega, who has emerged as a major challenger to Maduro.

"It seems like a movie," said Julio Borges, leader of the opposition-controlled legislature, of the helicopter raid.

RELATED: Venezuela President Maduro and Vice President Tareck El Aissami

14 PHOTOS
Venezuela President Maduro and Vice President Tareck El Aissami
See Gallery
Venezuela President Maduro and Vice President Tareck El Aissami
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (R) and Venezuela's Vice President Tareck El Aissami, shake hands during a meeting to commemorate the 18th anniversary of the arrival to the presidency of the late President Hugo Chavez at the Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela February 2, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Venezuelan Interior Minister Tareck El Aissami (L) and Russian PM Vladimir Putin after a wreath laying ceremony at Simon Bolivar's pantheon in Caracas, April 2, 2010. Putin arrived here Friday to sign military and energy deals with the presidents of Venezuela and Bolivia that broaden Russia's footprint in Latin America. AFP PHOTO/Miguel Gutierrez (Photo credit should read MIGUEL GUTIERREZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's president, holds a cross given to him by Pope Francis while addressing pro-government supporters in Caracas, Venezuela, on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016. Venezuela's armed forces vowed allegiance to President Nicolas Maduro as the opposition-controlled National Assembly on Tuesday debated the constitutionality of his rule. Photographer: Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (C) receives a welcome with military honors upon his arrival to a ceremony to mark the opening of the judicial year at the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ) in Caracas, Venezuela February 7, 2017. In the front row, L to R: Venezuela's Supreme Court First Vice President Maikel Moreno, President Maduro's wife and deputy of Venezuela's United Socialist Party (PSUV) Cilia Flores, President Maduro, Venezuela's Supreme Court President Gladys Gutierrez, Venezuela's Supreme Court Second Vice President Indira Alfonzo and Venezuela's Vice President Tareck El Aissami. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY.
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (R) speaks next to Venezuela's Vice President Tareck El Aissami, during a meeting to commemorate the 18th anniversary of the arrival to the presidency of the late President Hugo Chavez at the Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela February 2, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Venezuela's Vice President Tareck El Aissami attends the swearing-in ceremony of the new board of directors of Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA in Caracas, Venezuela January 31, 2017. REUTERS/Marco Bello
Colombia's Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera (L) and Venezuela's Interior and Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami attend a bilateral meeting in Canaima discussing anti-drugs issues January 26, 2011. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins (VENEZUELA - Tags: POLITICS)
Venezuela's Interior and Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami holds a weapon confiscated by the police during a news conference in Caracas June 23, 2009. El Aissami said about 2,200 firearms were seized this year in various operations in the Caracas metropolitan area as part of police efforts to combat crime. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins (VENEZUELA CONFLICT CRIME LAW POLITICS)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (2nd R) is welcomed by Venezuela's Interior and Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami (R) during a visit to the National Pantheon in Caracas November 27, 2009. REUTERS/Edwin Montilva (VENEZUELA POLITICS)
Tareck El Aissami, vice president of Venezuela, smiles during a swearing in ceremony for the new board of directors of Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA), Venezuela's state oil company, in Caracas, Venezuela, on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017. Nicholas Maduro, president of Venezuela, has given his vice president wide-reaching decree powers, including the ability to determine ministries' spending plans and expropriate private businesses, in a move that has fueled speculation over possible succession plans. Photographer: Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg via Getty Images
CARACAS-VENEZUELA, FEBRUARY 01: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (R) and Venezuela's Vice President Tareck El Aissami (3rd L) attend a military parade in Caracas, Venezuela on February 1, 2017. (Photo by Carlos Becerra/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro addresses members of CARICOM at a plenary session during the 40th Heads of government meeting at the Hilton Trinidad and Conference Centre July 6, 2013. REUTERS/Andrea De Silva (TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO - Tags: POLITICS)
Tareck El Aissami, vice president of Venezuela, left, speaks with Nicolas Maduro, president of Venezuela, during a swearing in ceremony for the new board of directors of Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA), Venezuela's state oil company, in Caracas, Venezuela, on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017. Maduro has given his vice president wide-reaching decree powers, including the ability to determine ministries' spending plans and expropriate private businesses, in a move that has fueled speculation over possible succession plans. Photographer: Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg via Getty Images
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

"Some people say it is a set-up, some that it is real ... Yesterday was full of contradictions ... A thousand things are happening, but I summarize it like this: a government is decaying and rotting, while a nation is fighting for dignity."

Though Perez posted a video on social media showing himself in front of four hooded armed men and claiming to represent a coalition of security and civilian officials rising up against "tyranny," there was no evidence of deeper support.

"CHEAP SHOW"

The government, however, accused the policemen of links to the CIA and to Miguel Rodriguez, a former interior minister and intelligence chief under Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chavez, who recently broke with government.

"I'm not at all convinced by the helicopter incident," Rodriguez told Reuters on Wednesday, saying the figures behind Perez in the video looked like dolls and expressing surprise the helicopter could fly freely and also not injure anyone.

"Conclusion: a cheap show. Who gains from this? Only Nicolas for two reasons: to give credibility to his coup d'etat talk, and to blame Rodriguez," he added, referring to himself.

Around the time of the attack, the pro-government Supreme Court expanded the role of the state ombudsman, a human rights guarantor who is closely allied with Maduro, by giving him powers previously held only by the state prosecutor's office.

Tarek Saab, an ardent Maduro ally, can now lead criminal investigations by ordering state officials to conduct autopsies and carry out ballistics tests, powers previously reserved for state prosecutors. He will also have access to the case files associated with criminal trials.

Opposition leaders described that as an attempt to supplant chief prosecutor Ortega, who has confronted both Maduro and the Supreme Court this year after splitting ranks.

Adding to Venezuela's tinder-box atmosphere, Venezuelan opposition supporters were taking to the streets again on Wednesday, to block roads around the nation for four hours with barricades. A similar event on Monday brought much of Caracas and other cities to a standstill.

Opposition supporters hope that cracks within government may swing the crisis their way, and have been delighted to see heavyweights like Ortega and Rodriguez oppose Maduro.

But there seemed to be little enthusiasm for the pilot Perez. "It's a joke. How many people have been arrested for raising a flag? Yet someone who takes a helicopter, gets away," said Gary Guillen, walking in a Caracas street. "This sounds more like government tactics than anything else."

Interior Minister Nestor Reverol, appearing alongside police chiefs, said the attack was the work of a few rogue individuals and did not represent the views of the rest of "this noble body."

Foreign Minister Samuel Moncada complained at a news conference about the lack of international condemnation of Tuesday's helicopter attack in Caracas, saying it contrasted with the barrage of foreign criticism of the government.

"In Europe it's now eight at night, but we've not had any reaction from European Union countries," he said of a bloc that has been strongly critical of Maduro in recent months.

The minister rejected accusations that the attack was carried out by the government for its own purposes. "Who can believe we are that sophisticated? Sending someone to throw grenades, who can believe that?" he asked, calling Perez a "psychopath." (Additional reporting by Silene Ramirez, Brian Ellsworth, Herbert Villaraga, Diego Ore and Girish Gupta; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.