A helicopter fired 15 shots at Venezuela’s Interior Ministry and dropped four grenades on the Supreme Court on Tuesday in what embattled President Nicolas Maduro has deemed as an attack by “terrorists” seeking a coup.
The attack took place while the president was speaking live on state television.
“Sooner rather than later, we are going to capture the helicopter and those behind this armed terrorist attack against the institutions of the country,” Maduro said.
“They could have caused dozens of deaths,” he said.
Scores of people were attending a social event at the Ministry when the attack took place, while judges were holding a meeting when the Supreme Court was targeted, officials said.
No one was wounded in either incident.
The 54-year-old socialist president has faced three months of protests from opposition leaders who decry him as a dictator who has wrecked a once-prosperous economy. There has been growing dissent too from within government and the security forces.
At least 75 people have died, and hundreds more been injured and arrested, in the anti-government unrest since April.
Demonstrators are demanding general elections, measures to alleviate a brutal economic crisis, freedom for hundreds of jailed opposition activists, and independence for the opposition-controlled National Assembly legislature.
Maduro says they are seeking a coup against him with the encouragement of a US government eager to gain control of Venezuela’s oil reserves, the largest in the world.
Venezuela’s government said in a communique the helicopter was stolen by investigative police pilot Oscar Perez, who declared himself in rebellion against Maduro.
Images shared on social and local media appear to show Perez waving a banner from the helicopter reading “Liberty”, and the number “350” in large letters.
The number refers to the constitutional article allowing people the right to oppose an undemocratic government.
A video posted on Perez’ Instagram account around the same time showed him standing in front of several hooded armed men, saying an operation was underway to restore democracy.
Perez said in the video he represented a coalition of military, police and civilian officials opposed to the “criminal” government, urged Maduro’s resignation and called for general elections. “This fight is … against the vile government. Against tyranny,” he said. Authorities said they were still searching for the man.
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said security forces were being deployed to apprehend Perez as well as recover the heisted German-built Bolkow helicopter.
Local media also linked Perez to a 2015 action film, Suspended Death, which he co-produced and starred in as an intelligence agent rescuing a kidnapped businessman.
On Tuesday, witnesses reported hearing several detonations in downtown Caracas, where the pro-Maduro Supreme Court, the presidential palace and other key government buildings are located.
Opponents to Maduro view the Interior Ministry as a bastion of repression and also hate the Supreme Court for its string of rulings bolstering the president’s power and undermining the opposition-controlled legislature.
Opposition leaders have long been calling on Venezuela’s security forces to stop obeying Maduro.
However, there was also some speculation among opposition supporters on social media that the attack could have been staged to justify repression or cover up drama at Venezuela’s National Assembly, where two dozen lawmakers said they were being besieged by pro-government gangs.
Earlier on Tuesday, Maduro warned that he and supporters would take up arms if his socialist government was violently overthrown by opponents.
“If Venezuela was plunged into chaos and violence and the Bolivarian Revolution destroyed, we would go to combat. We would never give up, and what couldn’t be done with votes, we would do with arms, we would liberate the fatherland with arms,” he said.
Maduro, who replaced Hugo Chavez in 2013, is pushing a July 30 vote for a special super-body called a Constituent Assembly, which could rewrite the national charter and supersede other institutions such as the opposition-controlled congress.
He has touted the assembly as the only way to bring peace to Venezuela. But opponents, who want to bring forward the next presidential election scheduled for late 2018, say it is a sham poll designed purely to keep the socialists in power.
They are boycotting the vote, and protesting daily on the streets to try and have it stopped.
Opposition to the July 30 vote has come not just from Venezuelan opposition parties but also from the chief state prosecutor Luisa Ortega and one-time government heavyweights such as former intelligence service boss Miguel Rodriguez.
Rodriguez criticized Maduro for not holding a referendum before the Constituent Assembly election, as his predecessor Chavez had done in 1999.
The government said pilot Perez was linked to Rodriguez.
As the drama was unfolding outside the Supreme Court, inside magistrates were busy issuing a number of rulings further hemming in the opposition. One dismissed a challenge against Maduro’s plans for a constitutional assembly.
The helicopter incident capped a volatile 24 hours that began with widespread looting in the coastal city of Maracay on Monday night and continued Tuesday when opposition lawmakers got into a heated scuffle with security forces assigned to protect the National Assembly.
At least 68 supermarkets, pharmacies and liquor stores were looted and several government offices burned following anti-government protests in Maracay, which is about a 90 minute drive from Caracas.
On Tuesday, opposition lawmakers got into fisticuffs with national guardsmen as they tried to enter the National Assembly. In a video circulating on social media, the commander of a national guard unit protecting the legislature aggressively shoved National Assembly President Julio Borges as he’s walking away from a heated discussion.