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Venezuela braces for possible crackdown after apparent drone attack on Maduro

An explosion interrupted President Nicolás Maduro televised speech in what the government called a “failed attack” against the president. (Video: AP)

CARACAS, Venezuela — The Venezuelan government made more arrests Sunday in connection with an apparent assassination attempt on President Nicolás Maduro, as the crisis-plagued South American nation braced for a possibility of wider crackdown on dissent.

Interior Minister Néstor Luis Reverol said six “terrorists” were detained Sunday,  a day after the government said drones carrying explosives targeted Maduro in the midst of a nationally televised address. Reverol said all the “material and intellectual authors inside and outside of the country” have been identified, but he did not provide further details.

Maduro was unharmed in the incident, which officials said injured seven soldiers in an extraordinary scene captured on video that showed hundreds of Maduro’s troops seemingly fleeing in panic at the sound of an explosion. Saying a “shield of love” had protected his life, the president accused “far right” extremists linked to Colombia and Venezuelan dissidents living in the United States for the alleged attack during an impassioned speech delivered three hours after the incident.

Although some opposition leaders said they doubted the government’s version, two residents of a nearby building said Sunday that they saw the drone and watched it explode.

“We saw the drone that looked like the size of half a bicycle. It came from the sky and we thought it was a boy playing with it,” said Pedro Peña, 62, who was in a seventh-floor apartment with Gladys Miquelena, 56.

Seconds after they saw it, it exploded, he said. “We were scared. It sounded like a bomb.”

There were reports of a gas leak and explosion, but witnesses dismissed them.

“It was not a gas leak. We have direct gas,” said Catherine Pita, 24, a neighbor. “It was a drone that hit the building and caused the fire. One girl was hit by flying glass on the head and was taken to the hospital.”

Reverol said there were two drones, which he identified as DJI M600s. Neither, he said, reached its intended target area before detonating. Two separate videos, posted on Twitter, showed drones at the scene; one crashed into a building and the other exploded in midair.

Maduro went so far as to blame Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos by name for the attack, prompting Santos’s office to issue an “emphatic denial.” 

“The suggestion that the Colombian president is responsible for this supposed attack against the Venezuela president is absurd and lacking in all foundation,” Santos’s office said in a statement. “It is already the custom of the Venezuelan leader to permanently blame Colombia for any type of situation.”

A senior State Department official declined to comment on the incident beyond saying the department was following reports from Caracas.

A video of the incident at 5:40 p.m. Saturday showed first lady Cilia Flores looking up from beside Maduro and putting her hand to her heart, appearing frightened, after an apparent explosion. Maduro is then abruptly cut off during his address to his National Guard. A camera then trains on lines of military personnel in formation in the center of Caracas. Seconds later, the soldiers, as well as figures standing behind barricades, run to one side and Maduro’s voice can be heard saying, “Let’s go to the right.”

“From the footage of the stage and the military scattering, it looks like they saw something,” said David Smilde, a Venezuela expert with the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank. “But if the government or someone else does not put out some footage of these drones or the explosions, it should be considered highly suspect. They film everything they do from multiple angles. So it is hard to imagine that they would not have footage of this if it actually happened.”

Venezuela’s opposition leaders cast doubts on the government’s version of the attack. They accused it of looking for an excuse to round up the increasing number of army deserters while distracting the public from an economic crisis in which hunger and malnutrition are growing and disease is spreading as hospitals lack even basic medicines. 

Seven journalists covering the story were stopped by security forces and interrogated for hours, according to Venezuela’s National Union of Press Workers. All were freed, but some had their cameras confiscated, the union said.

“We were doing videos from our car because it was raining and then we tried to go near Bolivar Avenue to show the situation when national guard and military intelligence approached us,” Neidy Freites, a reporter for the live-streaming news site VivoPlay said in a video posted on the outlet’s Twitter account. “One of them got in our car. . . . He almost sat on top of me,” she said. “He took my phone, told me to turn off the camera. It was intimidating.”

A coalition of parties and civil society groups called the Ample Front said in a statement that “it remains to be seen if it really was an attack, a chance accident or some of the other versions circulating in the media.

“We are alerting against the government attempting to deviate the focus of international and national public opinion from the crisis, and to criminalize those who democratically oppose it,” the group said. 

Juan Pablo Guanipa, who was removed as governor of the state of Zulia, tweeted the video of the moment the speech was interrupted, and said: “These images leave us two conclusions. That the regime of Maduro knows it has so much rejection from the people and the military that it puts up an attack to see how much Venezuelan and international solidarity he can gather. And that the armed forces are scared and not willing to defend his life. ”

Maduro on Sunday sought to rally his supporters via Twitter: “People of Venezuela! I have complete trust that I will dedicate all the years of my life to the permanent fight for our Homeland. Our fight is just!”

The incident left Venezuela reeling at time of national distress. The South American nation is in the thick of a roiling political and economic crisis. With inflation spiraling toward 1 million percent and shortages 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.

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 fraudulent.

“He’ll use the incident to radicalize; likely, to purge the military, strengthen his personal guard, and embellish the narrative about being under attack from the U.S. and Colombia and others in a bid for sympathy and support,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas, a business and culture organization.

Faiola reported from Miami.

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