Guardian News and Media/ Caracas
The face-off between Nicolas Maduro and his US-backed challenger Juan Guaido has escalated dramatically after Venezuelan intelligence agents seized Guaido’s chief of staff and accused him of leading a “terrorist cell” plotting a wave of political assassinations.
The charges – which opposition leaders rejected as a ploy to attack and intimidate their movement – were announced by Maduro’s Interior Minister, Nestor Reverol.
“We would like to inform the national and international communities that our intelligence services have dismantled … a terrorist cell that was planning to carry out a series of targeted attacks,” Reverol said in a broadcast on state channel Venezolana de Television.
Reverol claimed the supposed cell “had hired Colombian and Central American mercenaries to kill political leaders, military officials, Supreme Court judges and carry out acts of sabotage against public services to generate cause in Venezuelan society”.
He alleged Guaido’s aide – the 49-year-old lawyer Roberto Marrero – was a key leader of the “criminal organisation” and claimed a cache of “weapons of war” had been apprehended with him.
As he was taken into custody by masked agents on Wednesday, Marrero told neighbours two rifles and a hand grenade had been planted at his home in the capital, Caracas.
Speaking during a visit to the northern state of Aragua, Maduro claimed the alleged cell “had a number of objectives: barracks, hospitals, underground stations”.
“Let it be clear, the government will not hesitate to imprison terrorist groups,” Maduro added, according to the pro-government newspaper Ultimas Noticias.
Marrero’s detention was splashed on the front pages of state-controlled tabloids in Venezuela yesterday morning in an apparent bid to discredit Guaido’s movement to topple Maduro, which began in January when the young opposition declared himself the country’s rightful interim leader.
“Guaido’s right hand planned terrorist acts,” read the headline of the Diario VEA newspaper.
Opposition leaders and western governments – most of which recognise Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate caretaker president – denounced Marrero’s detention as a craven attack on Maduro’s foes.
“This is the start of a new onslaught of persecution,” said Juan Pablo Guanipa, a key Guaido ally in Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second largest city.
Writing in the Miami Herald, the US vice-president, Mike Pence, said Marrero’s “kidnapping” was “the most recent example of Maduro’s brutality and despotism”.
“We will not tolerate Marrero’s imprisonment or the intimidation of the legitimate government of Venezuela. And those responsible will be held accountable. Maduro must release Marrero now,” Pence wrote.
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