June 28, 2017 / 3:36 PM / 2 months ago

Venezuela hunts rogue police attacker, Maduro foes smell rat

A police helicopter flies over Venezuela's Supreme Court building in Caracas June 27, 2017, in this still image taken from a video. Mandatory credit Caraota Digital - MUST COURTESY CARAOTA DIGITAL/Handout via REUTERS

CARACAS (Reuters) - The Venezuelan government hunted on Wednesday for a rogue policemen who attacked key installations by helicopter, but critics of President Nicolas Maduro suspected the raid may have been manipulated to justify repression.

In extraordinary scenes over Caracas around sunset on Tuesday, the stolen helicopter fired shots at the Interior Ministry and dropped grenades on the Supreme Court, both viewed by Venezuela's opposition as bastions of support for a dictator.

Nobody was injured and the aircraft escaped.

Officials said special forces sought Oscar Perez, a police pilot named as the mastermind of the raid by the helicopter that carried a banner saying "Freedom!"

In 2015, Perez co-produced and starred in "Death Suspended," an action film based on real events in which he played the lead role as a government agent rescuing a kidnapped businessman.

There was no sign of Perez on Wednesday, though police sources said the helicopter was dumped in Higuerote, on the Caribbean coast.

The attack exacerbated an already full-blown political crisis in Venezuela after three months of opposition protests demanding general elections and fixes for the sinking economy.

At least 75 people have died since April, with hundreds more arrested and injured in what Maduro terms an ongoing coup attempt with U.S. encouragement.

"It's a terrorist attack that is part of an insurrectional offensive by Venezuelan right-wing extremists with the support of foreign governments and powers," said a Venezuelan government communique on the helicopter raid.

The attack fed a conspiracy theory by opposition supporters that it may have been a government setup and overshadowed other drama on Tuesday, including the besieging of opposition legislators by gangs in the National Assembly.

The helicopter raid also coincided with a judicial measure weakening the powers of dissident chief state prosecutor Luisa Ortega, who has emerged as a major challenger to Maduro.

"It seems like a movie," said Julio Borges, leader of the opposition-controlled legislature, of the helicopter raid.

Investigative police pilot Oscar Perez reads a statement from an undisclosed location June 27, 2017, in this still image taken from a video. Mandatory credit @OSCARPEREZGV INSTAGRAM - MUST COURTESY INSTAGRAM/@OSCARPEREZGOV/Handout via REUTERS

"Some people say it is a set-up, some that it is real ... Yesterday was full of contradictions ... A thousand things are happening, but I summarize it like this: a government is decaying and rotting, while a nation is fighting for dignity."

"A CHEAP SHOW'

Though Perez posted a video on social media showing himself in front of four hooded armed men and claiming to represent a coalition of security and civilian officials rising up against "tyranny," there was no evidence of deeper support.

The government, however, accused the policeman of links to the CIA and to Miguel Rodriguez, a former interior minister and intelligence chief under Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chavez, who has recently broken with government.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (L) speaks during a gathering in support of him and his proposal for the National Constituent Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS

"I'm not at all convinced by the helicopter incident," Rodriguez told Reuters on Wednesday, saying the figures behind Perez in the video looked like dolls and expressing surprise the helicopter could fly freely and also not injure anyone.

"Conclusion: a cheap show. Who gains from this? Only Nicolas for two reasons: to give credibility to his coup d'etat talk, and to blame Rodriguez," he added, referring to himself.

Around the time of the attack, the pro-government Supreme Court expanded the role of the state ombudsman, a human rights guarantor who is closely allied with Maduro, by giving him powers previously held only by the state prosecutor's office.

    Tarek Saab, an ardent Maduro ally, can now lead criminal investigations by ordering state officials to conduct autopsies and carry out ballistics tests, powers previously reserved for state prosecutors. He will also have access to the case files associated with criminal trials.

    Opposition leaders described that as an attempt to supplant chief prosecutor Ortega, who has confronted both Maduro and the Supreme Court this year after splitting ranks.

Adding to Venezuela's tinder-box atmosphere, Venezuelan opposition supporters planned to take to the streets again on Wednesday, to block roads around the nation for four hours with barricades. A similar event on Monday brought much of Caracas and other cities to a standstill.

Opposition supporters hope that cracks within government may swing the crisis their way, and have been delighted to see heavyweights like Ortega and Rodriguez oppose Maduro.

But there seemed to be little enthusiasm for the pilot Perez. "It's a joke. How many people have been arrested for raising a flag? Yet someone who takes a helicopter, gets away," said Gary Guillen, walking in a Caracas street. "This sounds more like government tactics than anything else."

Additional reporting by Herbert Villaraga, Diego Ore and Girish Gupta; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe

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