A police helicopter launched grenades at Venezuela’s supreme court building on Tuesday evening following months of protests against the country’s president, Nicolás Maduro.
Maduro said “terrorists” had lobbed two grenades that failed to detonate. Some reports put the number of grenades higher. Local media suggested a former police intelligence officer had carried out the attack.
Videos circulated on social media showed a man piloting the helicopter while holding a banner that read “Liberty. Article 350”, in reference to the part of the Venezuelan constitution that allows citizens to declare themselves in civil disobedience in front of “any regime that runs counter to democratic guarantees or undermines human rights”.
The incident took place just hours after Maduro warned that he and his supporters would be willing to take up arms if his government was toppled by “undemocratic forces”.
Local media quoted witness accounts describing what they said had sounded like an exchange of fire between guards at the supreme court building and the helicopter. Maduro referred to the incident as an “act of terrorism”, and called on his supporters to activate a “new phase in the revolution” should anything happen to him.
According to the Venezuelan daily El Nacional, the man who piloted the helicopter is Oscar Pérez, a former captain in the CICPC, Venezuela’s intelligence and investigative body. In a video released on social media, Pérez speaks directly to a camera flanked by four masked men wielding what appear to be assault rifles.
“Venezuelans, dear brothers, we talk to you on behalf of the state. We are a coalition of military, police and civilians in search of an equilibrium and against this transitory, criminal government,”Pérez said. “We have two choices: be judged tomorrow by our conscience and the people or begin today to free ourselves from this corrupt government.”
Perez claims to have no political affiliation. In a second video, he pointed to a purple ribbon tied around his left arm and says his allegiance is to “the truth and to Christ” According to his Instagram profile, Perez is a crime units investigator, a pilot and a K9 instructor.
Maduro, speaking on state TV, said the grenades did not explode and Venezuelan special forces were searching for the “terrorists” behind the attack.
Maduro added: “I demand that the MUD [opposition coalition] condemns this eminently coup-mongering attack … It could have caused a tragedy with several dozen dead and injured.”
Later, information minister Ernesto Villegas read a statement accusing the helicopter of firing 15 shots against the interior ministry as a reception was taking place for 80 people. It then flew a short distance to the government-stacked supreme court, which was in session, and launched what he said were four Israeli-made grenades of “Colombian origin”, two of them against national guardsmen protecting the building.
The president of the high court said there were no injuries from the attack and that the area was still being surveyed for damages. Villegas said security forces were being deployed to apprehend Pérez, who the government accused – without giving evidence – of working under the instructions of the CIA and the US embassy in Caracas, as well as to recover the helicopter.
Many of Maduro’s opponents accused the president on social media of orchestrating an elaborate ruse to justify a crackdown against Venezuelans seeking to block his plans to rewrite the constitution.
Opposition activists have been staging unrelenting protests against a government they accuse of chronic mismanagement and increasingly authoritarian behaviour. The once-prosperous oil-producing country has suffered from rocketing inflation and spiralling crime rates.
The pro-government supreme court is particularly hated by Maduro’s opponents for its string of rulings bolstering his power and undermining the opposition-controlled legislature.
Earlier on Tuesday, at a rally to promote a 30 July vote for a constituent assembly, Maduro said he would fight to defend the “Bolivarian revolution” of his predecessor Hugo Chávez.
“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 we failed to achieve with votes, we would do with weapons. We would liberate the fatherland with weapons.”
His comments, which were broadcast live to the country, came after one of the worst outbreaks of looting in three months of deadly protests. Some 68 businesses, including supermarkets, liquor stores, bakeries and food shops were ransacked in a wave of lawlessness that began Monday night in the city of Maracay, 100km west of Caracas, and continued well into Tuesday afternoon.
Videos circulating on social media showed at least a dozen supermarkets being ransacked by looters. The headquarters of the governing party, the PSUV, was also reportedly burnt.
More than 80 people have died since the clashes began in early April, but Monday night’s violence marked the first time that street clashes have spread into more generalised anarchy.
Maduro, who accuses protesters of being terrorists trying to wage a US-backed coup attempt against his government, is pushing for a constituent assembly that would redraft the country’s constitution. The move has been rejected by both the opposition and by a growing number of dissidents from within his own party.
On Tuesday, Maduro said the “destruction” of Venezuela would unleash a refugee wave dwarfing the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. “Listen, President Donald Trump,” he said. “You have the responsibility: stop the madness of the violent Venezuelan right wing.”
Julio Borges, head of the opposition-led national assembly just said that Maduro’s statement could not be taken lightly.
“It is the clearest acknowledgment that Venezuela lives a dictatorship that intends to impose itself – against the democratic spirit – through a constituent assembly that will only deepen the social, political and humanitarian crisis that affects the country.”