Saturday 7 December, 2019

Venezuela quells soldiers' revolt, top court blasts congress

Anti-government protesters face off with security forces as they show support for an apparent mutiny by a national guard unit in the Cotiza neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, Jan. 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

Anti-government protesters face off with security forces as they show support for an apparent mutiny by a national guard unit in the Cotiza neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, Jan. 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

Venezuela plunged deeper into turmoil on Monday as security forces put down a pre-dawn uprising by national guardsmen that triggered violent street protests and the Supreme Court outlawed the opposition-controlled congress' defiant new leadership.

The mutiny triggered protests in a poor neighborhood just a few miles (kilometers) from Venezuela's presidential palace. It was dispersed with tear gas as residents set fire to a barricade of trash and chanted demands that President Nicolas Maduro leave power.

The military said in a statement said that it had recovered all the weapons and captured those involved in what it described as "treasonous" acts motivated by "obscure interests tied to the far right."

It said at around 2:50 a.m. (06:50 GMT), a small group of guardsmen took captive a captain in charge of a police station in western Caracas and then moved across the capital in two military trucks to the poor neighborhood of Petare, where they stole a cache of weapons from another outpost.

They were caught a few hours later at a national guard outpost 3 kilometers (2 miles) from the Miraflores presidential palace.

A few hours earlier, a group of heavily armed national guardsmen published a series of videos on social media saying they won't recognise Maduro's government, which has come under increasing domestic and international pressure over a newly begun second term that the opposition-controlled congress and many nations consider illegitimate.

In one of the videos, a man identifying himself as 3rd Sgt. Alexander Bandres Figueroa, addressing the "people of Venezuela," urges his compatriots to take to the streets to show support for their rebellion.

"You asked to take to the streets to defend the constitution, well here we are," he said in a video shot at night in which several heavily armed men and a national guard truck can be seen in the background.

"You wanted us to light the fuse, so we did. We need your support," he added.

At daybreak in the adjacent neighborhood of Cotiza, a group of shirtless young men, some with their faces covered, built a barricade across the street with a burning car, heavy sewer grates and a large chunk of concrete.

An angry group of women shouted that they have lived for too long without running water.

"Freedom! Freedom!" they chanted. "Maduro has to go!"

"We must defend our homeland," Maria Fernanda Rodriguez, a 36-year-old manicurist, told The Associated Press, her eyes welling from the tear gas.

Hours later, the government-stacked Supreme Court said it was throwing out recent measures by the National Assembly that declared Maduro's presidency illegitimate, deepening a standoff with the opposition-controlled legislature.

The justices ruled that the new leadership of congress itself is invalid, and urged the country's chief prosecutor to investigate whether congressional leaders had acted criminally in openly defying the nation's constitution.

Juan Guaido, president of congress, shrugged off the court's warning and reiterated his call for people to take to the streets Wednesday — a historic date commemorating the end of Venezuela's military dictatorship in 1958 — to demand Maduro abandon power.

"The National Assembly is the only institution elected by the people of Venezuela," Guaido said at a press conference at the legislature.

Dozens of foreign governments have refused to recognise Maduro's second term, some saying they are ready to recognise Guaido as interim president until fair elections can be held.

In addition, the Trump administration is weighing tougher financial sanctions on Venezuela, while a dozen mostly conservative Latin American and Caribbean governments said they will block officials from Maduro's government from entering their countries and take steps to freeze assets that are the byproduct of corruption

While discontent among Venezuelans is rising amid widespread food shortages and hyperinflation, Maduro is believed to have the loyalty of his top military command. In the past, troops have easily put down small uprisings.

Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez said on Twitter that those responsible for the incident would be punished with the full force of the law.

Maduro was the target of an apparent assassination attempt Aug. 4 when two drones armed with explosives detonated near him as he spoke at a military parade. Officials have jailed dozens of suspects, including an opposition lawmaker.

In June 2017, rogue police officer Oscar Perez stole a helicopter and flew it over the capital, launching grenades at the Supreme Court building. He and several comrades died in a gunbattle with police after months on the lam.

Get the latest local and international news straight to your mobile phone for free: