CARACAS, VENEZUELA — A televised speech by President Nicolás Maduro was abruptly cut off Saturday, and military personnel were seen running from what the government called a “failed attack” against the president that left seven soldiers wounded.
At 5:40 p.m., first lady Cilia Flores looked up and put her hand to her heart, appearing frightened. The image was quickly changed to lines of military personnel in formation in the center of Caracas, who seconds later all ran to one side. Maduro’s voice could be heard saying “let’s go to the right.”
“Explosions were heard,” said Communications Minister Jorge Rodríguez an hour later on state TV. “Investigations show clearly that flying artifacts or drones containing explosive material exploded near the presidential stage.”
Photos of the incident published by China’s Xinhua News Agency showed bodyguards jumping in front of Maduro with Kevlar shields, and one uniformed officer clutching a bleeding wound on his head.
Rodríguez said Maduro was safe and in a meeting with his cabinet and top military officials and that the wounded men were being treated. Firefighters were at the scene of the explosion, the Associated Press reported.
“The event is evidence of desperation of ultraright leaders who, being defeated politically, continue to resort to criminal practices, and they have failed once again,” Rodríguez said.
Maduro, who was speaking at an event celebrating the 81st anniversary of Venezuela’s National Guard, was in the middle of a pledge to lead the country toward an economic recovery when the apparent explosion occurred.
He addressed the nation nearly three hours after the alleged attack, saying that some of the “far right” plotters had been captured and pointing the finger at Venezuelan dissidents in the United States as well as neighboring Colombia and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.
“This was an attack to kill me,” he said. “Already, the first investigations show that those intellectually and financially responsible for this attack live in the United States of North America, in Florida. I hope the government of Donald Trump is willing to combat terrorist groups that want to attack presidents of peaceful nations.”
Some of Maduro’s detractors suggested that Saturday’s alleged attack could have been staged to stoke patriotism and buoy his flagging national support. The Associated Press, citing three officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the incident, said the blast was caused by a gas tank explosion inside an apartment building.
Local journalists identified the site of the explosion as the Residencias Don Eduardo apartment building in central Caracas, and they posted photos on Twitter of smoke billowing from an apartment there.
However, a military expert and former member of the armed forces who asked that her name be withheld out of fear of government reprisals said her internal sources told her that the attack had not been staged. She predicted that the incident would spark a new series of military arrests.
Another military expert, Rocio San Miguel, who is also head of Control Ciudadano, an investigative website focused on security and the military, said that based on what she had gathered from internal sources, she thinks that the incident was “a security mistake. A military drone was destroyed by the military because they lost control of it. It started descending and to avoid it hitting the presidential stage, they destroyed it.” She said the explosion of the building was probably a separate incident.
Carlos Julio Rojas, an activist who lives blocks away from where the incident took place, said he heard two explosions, and that the walls of his apartment “rumbled.”
“We saw how military men ran away and passed through our streets with rifles in hand, causing people to panic,” he said. Nearby neighbors, he said, told him they had also heard two separate explosions and that they believed one drone was intercepted and hit a nearby building, which is, they said, what caused the fumes that appear on pictures in social media.
Yet none of the neighbors, he said, were able to clearly see the drones.
A senior State Department official declined to comment on the incident beyond saying they were following reports from Caracas.
Most major opposition leaders refrained from commenting given conflicting information, but at least one, Nicmer Evans, tweeted: “No matter how credible what Maduro says may sound, once he says he has the material authors, but that evidence will come out later, he is so contradictory that any possibility of believing all of his statements is eliminated.”
The incident sent shock waves through Venezuela, a country already on edge. The South American nation is in the thick of a roiling political and economic crisis. With inflation spiraling toward 1 million percent and shortages of food and medicine growing more acute, dozens of officers and soldiers have been arrested by the government in connection with alleged coup plots.
In June 2017, an intelligence police commander flew a helicopter over government institutions and threw grenades at the country’s supreme court building. The commander, Oscar Pérez, was executed in January after publishing dramatic videos of his confrontation with military personnel.
Meanwhile, hundreds of soldiers have deserted their posts since Maduro — a former bus driver and the successor to Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013 — won an election in May that opposition leaders and dozens of countries, including the United States, called a fraudulent power grab. Maduro has sought to rally his loyalists to defend the nation after suggestions by President Trump that a military solution remains on the table to force Maduro to restore democracy.
A group called “Soldiers in T-Shirts,” who describe themselves as dissident soldiers, took responsibility for the attacks through a Twitter handle that has 90,000 followers.
“The operation was to fly two drones charged with C4 [explosive] with the presidential stage as the objective. But guard of honor snipers overtook the drones before they reached the target. We demonstrated that they’re vulnerable. We didn’t achieve it today, but it’s a matter of time. #PatriotMilitarymen,” the group tweeted around 7 p.m.
Maduro’s popularity has fallen to less than 30 percent as Venezuelans have become unable to meet their most basic needs.
Faiola reported from Miami.