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UN refugee agency fears for displaced Venezuelans amid COVID

June 18, 2020

GENEVA (AP) — The head of the U.N. refugee agency says he is “very worried” about the impact of the new coronavirus in Latin America, where millions of Venezuelans have fled upheaval at home and could face hardship abroad among lockdowns and other restrictive measures to fight the pandemic.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said 164 countries have either partially or totally closed their borders to fight COVID-19, the disease that can be caused by the virus. Many people who flee abroad rely on the “informal economy” often involving day work — activities at risk as host governments ratchet up lockdowns.

“Of course, it is good that countries are taking these measures of prudence” against the virus, Grandi said. “Unfortunately, COVID that has been able to cause the entire world to grind to a halt has not been able to stop wars, conflicts, violence, discrimination.”

“People are still fleeing their countries to seek refuge, to seek protection. This needs to be considered,” he added, appealing to governments. The impact could be especially stark for 3.7 million Venezuelans abroad, the world’s second-largest nationality of refugees after the 6.6 million Syrians displaced by their country’s war. The Americas have become the world’s epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.

“One region about which we’re very worried is, of course, Latin America and South America and in particular where countries host many millions of Venezuelans,” Grandi said in an interview. “They are particularly hit by COVID.”

The comments came as UNHCR issued its annual “Global Trends” report, which found that the number of asylum-seekers, internally displaced people and refugees shot up by nearly 9 million people last year — the biggest rise in its records — to 79.5 million people, accounting for 1% of all humanity, amid conflict, repression and upheaval.

UNHCR chalked up the surge to a new way of counting people displaced from Venezuela and a “worrying” new displacement in the persistent trouble spots of Congo, the Sahel region of Africa, Yemen and Syria, which alone accounted for more than 13 million of those people on the move.

While the total figure of people facing forced displacement rose from 70.8 million at the end of 2018, some 11 million people were “newly displaced” last year, with poorer countries among those most affected.

UNHCR says forced displacement has nearly doubled from 41 million people in 2010, and five countries — Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar — are the source of nearly two-thirds of people displaced abroad.

Grandi also noted about 30% to 40% of the world’s refugee population lived in camps. He said COVID-19 hasn’t affected “in dramatic numbers” camps like those in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh — a country that has taken in nearly a million Rohingya Muslims fleeing from Myanmar — or in Africa.

Amid the outbreak, UNHCR has stepped up its “cash transfer” programs that put money directly in the pockets of displaced people. Grandi says 65 countries now benefit from such programs, “and we have added 40 countries in just the last few months.”

Trump: US to deploy anti-drug Navy ships near Venezuela

April 02, 2020

MIAMI (AP) — President Donald Trump announced Wednesday that Navy ships are being moved toward Venezuela as his administration beefs up counter-narcotics operations in the Caribbean following a U.S. drug indictment against Nicolás Maduro.

The president’s announcement was a break from the daily White House press briefing to discuss the coronavirus pandemic, which has left much of the country in lock-down and which the government warns could cause 100,000 to 240,000 deaths.

“The Venezuelan people continue to suffer tremendously due to Maduro and his criminal control over the country, and drug traffickers are seizing on this lawlessness,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said after the president’s announcement.

The mission involves sending additional Navy warships, surveillance aircraft and special forces teams to nearly double the U.S. counter-narcotics capacity in the Western Hemisphere, with forces operating both in the Caribbean and eastern Pacific. Esper said the mission would be supported by 22 partner nations.

“As governments and nations focus on the coronavirus there is a growing threat that cartels, criminals, terrorists and other malign actors will try to exploit the situation for their own gain,” said Trump. “We must not let that happen.”

The enhanced mission has been months in the making but has taken on greater urgency following last week’s indictment of Maduro, Venezuela’s embattled socialist leader, and members of his inner circle and military. They are accused of leading a narcoterrorist conspiracy responsible for smuggling up to 250 metric tons of cocaine a year into the U.S., about half of it by sea.

“If I was just indicted for drug trafficking by the United States, with a $15 million reward for my capture, having the U.S. Navy conducting anti-drug operations off my coast would be something I would worry about,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who has been among those calling for a tougher stance against Maduro.

It also comes as Maduro steps up attacks on his U.S.-backed rival, Juan Guaidó. Maduro’s chief prosecutor ordered Guaidó to provide testimony Thursday as part of an investigation into an alleged coup attempt. Guaidó, the head of Venezuela’s congress who is recognized as his country’s legitimate leader by the U.S. and almost 60 other nations, is unlikely to show up, raising the possibility he could be arrested. The U.S. has long insisted it will not tolerate any harm against Guaido.

“No matter where you sit ideologically, any move to try to bring democracy back to Venezuela requires first recognizing the criminal nature of the Maduro regime, and making moves that scare the regime into negotiating,” said Raul Gallegos, a Bogota, Colombia-based director in the Andean region for Control Risks, a consulting group.

Maduro has blasted the Trump administration’s offer of a $15 million reward for his arrest, calling it the work of a “racist cowboy” aimed at getting U.S. hands on Venezuela’s vast oil reserves, the world’s largest. He also points out that the vast majority of cocaine leaves South America from Colombia, a staunch U.S. ally.

Others have faulted a U.S. plan, unveiled Tuesday by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to create a five-member council without Maduro or Guaidó to govern the country until elections can be held within a year. While its the first attempt in months by the U.S. to seek a negotiated solution to Venezuela’s stalemate, coming on the heels of the indictments many say it has little hope of succeeding and likely to drive Maduro farther away from the path of dialogue.

The Trump administration has long insisted that all options are on the table for removing Maduro, including military ones. Still, there’s no indication then, or now, that any sort of U.S. invasion is being planned.

Rather, the sending of ships fits into a longstanding call by the U.S. Southern Command for additional assets to combat growing antinarcotics and other security threats in the hemisphere. In January, another Navy vessel, the USS Detroit, conducted a freedom of navigation operation off the coast of Venezuela in a show of pressure against Maduro.

“That presence sends a big statement about U.S. commitment, it sends a big statement to our friends, it reassures them, and then to our adversaries that those are capable performers,” Adm. Craig Faller, the head of the U.S. military’s Southern Command, said in congressional testimony last month.

The report of the planned deployment comes two days after one of Venezuela’s naval patrol boats sank after colliding with a Portuguese-flagged cruise ship near the Venezuelan-controlled island of La Tortuga. Maduro accused the ship of acting aggressively and said it was possibly carrying “mercenaries” seeking his ouster.

“You have to be very naive to see this as an isolated incident,” Maduro said Tuesday night on state TV. But Columbia Cruise Services, the operator of the cruise ship, said the patrol boat fired gunshots and than purposely rammed into the liner at speed. There were no passengers on board and none of its 32 crew members were injured, the company said.

Ending Putin’s support of Venezuela no easy feat for US

February 19, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) — In October 2016, the head of Russia’s largest oil company traveled to the birthplace of Hugo Chávez, in the empty, sweltering plains of Venezuela, to unveil a giant bronze statue of the late socialist leader that he and his longtime friend, Russian President Vladimir Putin, commissioned from a prominent Russian artist.

It was a turning point in the relationship between Russia and Venezuela, and Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin brought with him a 600-year-old choir from a Moscow monastery to celebrate. Speaking to throngs of red-shirted government supporters in fluent Spanish gleaned from his days as a Soviet military translator in Africa, Sechin praised Chávez as a “leader of multi-polarity” and a “symbol of an entire era.”

“We have no choice between victory or death,” said Sechin, quoting a Venezuelan independence hero to describe the deepening ties between the two U.S. adversaries. ”We must achieve victory.” Now the Trump administration wants to break up that blossoming alliance as part of its campaign to oust Chavez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro.

On Tuesday, the Treasury Department blocked U.S. companies from doing business with Rosneft Trading SA, accusing the Geneva subsidiary of the Russian state-owned oil giant of providing a critical lifeline to Maduro as he seeks to bypass U.S. sanctions.

For months, U.S. officials have been warning foreign companies that they could face retaliation if they continue to do business with Maduro. Those admonishments have been aimed primarily at Russia, which U.S. officials say handles about 70% of Venezuelan oil transactions that have been rerouted since the Trump administration a year ago made it illegal for Americans to by crude from Venezuela.

Francisco Monaldi, a Venezuelan oil expert at Rice University in Houston, said the latest actions should send a chill through companies in Spain, China and elsewhere that continue to partner with state-run oil monopoly PDVSA. It could also foretell the ending of a special license for Chevron that has so far exempted the San Ramon, California-based company from having to pull out of the country, where it’s a partner in joint ventures with PDVSA that produce about a quarter of the OPEC nation’s total production.

“It’s no longer the dog barking,” said Monaldi. “It’s biting now.” PDVSA in a statement condemned what it called “economic assassination” by the U.S. aimed at taking control of Venezuela’s oil industry. Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said the new actions would bolster Venezuela’s lawsuit filed against the Trump administration at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

Rosneft operates with PDVSA several oil fields that it acquired after U.S. drillers were forced out by Chavez’s nationalization drive. But as the new, go-to supplier of the country’s pariah crude it wins two ways, according to analysts. First, Rosneft purchases Venezuela’s premium Merey 16 crude at a steep discount. It then uses the proceeds from its sale to pay down $6.5 billion lent to PDVSA since 2014 for the purchase of Russian-made weaponry and other goods.

Meanwhile, refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast that used to depend on Venezuela’s heavy crude have nearly tripled their imports of unfinished Russian petroleum products in the year since sanctions have been in place, according to U.S. Energy Department data.

To avoid complications for customers in China and India, Rosneft has been hiring tankers that try to hide their cargo by turning off their mandatory tracking systems and carrying out risky ship-to-ship transfers off the coast of west Africa and other distant locations.

In the short term, he expects Maduro will have to pay more to find another intermediary to take on the added risk of moving the country’s oil. That means his cash-strapped government will have even less money to import scarce food and medical supplies as well as repair the country’s crumbling electricity infrastructure. And with storage facilities already at capacity, production that is already at a seven-decade low is likely to fall even further, he added.

Still, short of a U.S. naval blockade of Venezuelan ports — a military option that the Trump administration has refused to rule out but has shown no sign of pursuing — nobody expects oil sales from the nation sitting atop the world’s largest petroleum reserves to dry up completely.

“They can find always find ways to sell it, but it’s much harder,” said Monaldi. Even less clear is the impact on the U.S.’ goal of engaging Russia to find a solution to Venezuela’s year-old political impasse.

The U.S. leads a group of now nearly 60 nations that recognize opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful leader following what it considers Maduro’s fraudulent 2018 re-election. In turn, Russia has accused the Trump administration of spreading false information to engineer a coup, needling the U.S. in what has traditionally been considered Washington’s backyard as the two sides wage proxy battles for influence in Syria, Ukraine and other global hot spots.

Richard Nephew, an energy researcher at Columbia University, said that in sparing Rosneft itself, and only going after one of its many units, the impact on Russia’s continued political support for Maduro is likely to be more muted.

The bulk of Rosneft’s long-term supply contracts are arranged directly by the parent company in Moscow, with the Swiss-based trading unit handling spot sales, he said. The sanctions also include a three-month winding down period, which should give the company — and ravenous oil traders — plenty of time to redirect transactions, including with Venezuela.

In addition, Rosneft and Sechin were already partially sanctioned in 2014 in retaliation for Russia’s annexation of Crimean peninsula in Ukraine. As a result, many U.S. companies had already been steering clear of the company.

“This seems more like a warning shot designed to look bigger than it actually is,” said Nephew, who helped design U.S. sanctions policy while at the State Department under President Barack Obama. “It’s shooting someone who is Russian sounding without really punishing the Russians themselves.”

Several pro-Putin lawmakers were dismissive of the actions, saying they would appeal to the World Trade Organization to remove what they described as unilateral, unlawful U.S. actions. “I think this issue can be resolved,” Vladimir Dzhabarov, a member of Russia’s upper house of parliament, told RIA Novosti news agency. “They’re smart over there (in Rosneft) and they will find a way to get around it.”

But even if Putin maintains outward support for Maduro, it’s unclear if he’ll double down and lend even more money to the bankrupt country. At the height of unrest in 2018, anti-government protesters tried to destroy the Chávez statue dedicated by Russia. Today, it’s under heavy guard, pointing to the uneasy calm that prevails in the normally pro-government Venezuelan countryside, where power outages are an almost daily occurrence and misery widespread.

While Venezuela has stayed current on its debt to Russia, and is expected to pay off the last remaining amount in the coming weeks, it’s defaulted on almost all other lenders and investors in the country’s bonds. Meanwhile, its debt with Russia is backed by a lien on 49.9% of PDVSA’s American subsidiary, Houston-based CITGO, control of which the Trump administration has handed to a board named by Guaidó.

“The Russians are nothing if not good chess players,” Russ Dallen, the Miami-based head of Caracas Capital Markets brokerage, wrote in a recent report. Rosneft’s “choice here will be an important tell for us about the future direction of their policy.”

Goodman reported from Miami.

Putin: No intention to deploy Russian troops in Venezuela

June 06, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — President Vladimir Putin has told reporters that Moscow has no intention to deploy its troops or set up military bases in Venezuela. He added that Russian experts have been in Venezuela to service Russian-made weapons bought by Caracas.

Putin, who was meeting Thursday with the head of international news agencies, was responding to a question about a tweet by U.S. President Donald Trump earlier this week that said Moscow had informed Washington it had pulled out its personnel from Venezuela.

“We aren’t creating any bases or sending troops there,” Putin said. “But we will be keeping our obligations in the sphere of military and technical cooperation.” The Russian leader said the U.S. sanctions against Venezuela have hurt ordinary people and warned Washington against using force.

Russian air force planes land in Venezuela carrying troops: reports

MARCH 24, 2019

CARACAS (Reuters) – Two Russian air force planes landed at Venezuela’s main airport on Saturday carrying a Russian defense official and nearly 100 troops, according to media reports, amid strengthening ties between Caracas and Moscow.

A flight-tracking website showed that two planes left from a Russian military airport bound for Caracas on Friday, and another flight-tracking site showed that one plane left Caracas on Sunday.

That comes three months after the two nations held military exercises on Venezuelan soil that President Nicolas Maduro called a sign of strengthening relations, but which Washington criticized as Russian encroachment in the region.

Reporter Javier Mayorca wrote on Twitter on Saturday that the first plane carried Vasily Tonkoshkurov, chief of staff of the ground forces, adding the second was a cargo plane carrying 35 tonnes of material.

An Ilyushin IL-62 passenger jet and an Antonov AN-124 military cargo plane left for Caracas on Friday from Russian military airport Chkalovsky, stopping along the way in Syria, according to flight-tracking website Flightradar24.

The cargo plane left Caracas on Sunday afternoon, according to Adsbexchange, another flight-tracking site.

The flights carried officials who arrived to “exchange consultations,” wrote Russian government-owned news agency Sputnik, which quoted an unnamed source at the Russian embassy.

“Russia has various contracts that are in the process of being fulfilled, contracts of a technical military character,” Sputnik quoted the source as saying.

A Reuters witness saw what appeared to be the passenger jet at the Maiquetia airport on Sunday.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Russia’s Defense Ministry and Foreign Ministry did not reply to messages seeking comment. The Kremlin spokesman also did not reply to a request for comment.

The Trump administration has levied crippling sanctions on the OPEC nation’s oil industry in efforts to push Maduro from power and has called on Venezuelan military leaders to abandon him. Maduro has denounced the sanctions as U.S. interventionism and has won diplomatic backing from Russia and China.

In December, two Russian strategic bomber aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons landed in Venezuela in a show of support for Maduro’s socialist government that infuriated Washington.

Maduro on Wednesday said Russia would send medicine “next week” to Venezuela, without describing how it would arrive, adding that Moscow in February had sent some 300 tonnes of humanitarian aid.

Venezuela in February had blocked a convoy carrying humanitarian aid for the crisis-stricken country that was coordinated with the team of opposition leader Juan Guaido, including supplies provided by the United States, from entering via the border with Colombia.

Source: Reuters.

Link: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-politics/russian-air-force-planes-land-in-venezuela-carrying-troops-report-idUSKCN1R50NB.

Candidate for EU’s top job slams Greece over Venezuela

February 07, 2019

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — The conservative candidate for the European Union’s top job has sharply criticized Greece’s stance on Venezuela’s political crisis, saying Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is “blocking initiatives on a European level” that would support those “fighting for a democratic Venezuela.”

Manfred Weber, who heads the European Parliament’s largest center-right group, said Thursday it was “a tragedy to see how the Greek government is now behaving on (a) European level.” Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president last month, saying President Nicolas Maduro’s re-election in May was fraudulent. The United States and a number of European Union countries have backed Guaido, but Greece’s governing Syriza party has expressed its “full support and solidarity” for Maduro.

Weber is running in May 23-26 European elections to succeed his EPP Christian Democrat party colleague Jean-Claude Juncker to run the European Commission. He told reporters in Athens: “Everybody who has eyes in his head must see that in Venezuela we have a dictatorship, a socialist dictatorship.”

He suggested the European Union should change its decision-making process in foreign affairs from requiring unanimous votes to allowing decisions to be taken through majority votes instead. That, he said, would ensure decisions “are not anymore in the hands of governments like here in Greece which have obviously more contact with (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and Maduro and not so much with the free world of democratic countries.”

Weber was in Athens to attend a two-day EPP group meeting. Greece’s left-wing government says it backs an EU initiative to try to find a political solution to the Venezuela crisis but has refused to endorse Guaido. Government officials had no immediate response to Weber’s remarks.

Greek opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, a close ally of Weber, said Greece’s support for Maduro had hurt the country’s standing. “I’m very sorry to say this but the position of the Greek prime minister on this issue is a disgrace for our country,” Mitsotakis said. “It isolates Greece and it really reduces our political influence abroad.”

EU chief calls for elections in Venezuela amid aid crisis

February 07, 2019

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) — A top European Union official on Thursday called for a peaceful solution to Venezuela’s crisis through free and transparent presidential elections as desperate residents gathered at the Colombian-Venezuela border demanding embattled President Nicolas Maduro allow in emergency food and medicine.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said an international coalition does not plan to impose a solution but is focused on finding answers to avoid violence or foreign intervention within Venezuela.

“We can have different points of view and readings about the causes of the crisis,” Mogherini said. “But we share the same objective, wishing to contribute to a politically peaceful and democratic solution.”

The “International Contact Group” met in Uruguay’s capital to discuss Venezuela’s crisis for the first time since opposition lawmaker Juan Guaido declared himself interim president of the South American nation.

Guaido, who has backing from some 40 countries including the United States, is seeking to oust Maduro following a 2018 election that many countries say was a sham. Maduro has support from several countries, including Russia and China.

Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez is leading the meeting attended by leaders of 14 countries, including Spain, Italy, Portugal and Sweden. But as the gathering got underway, tensions were playing out farther north in the Colombian border town of Cucuta. Humanitarian assistance from the U.S. is in Colombia and is en route to the town over objections from Maduro, who blames the White House for leading a coup against him.

The Venezuelan military has barricaded the bridge at the border crossing between the two countries in a bid to block the aid from passing. About a dozen human rights activists on Thursday stood at the metal gate at the entrance to the bridge on Colombia’s side. They held flags while Colombian police trucks carrying armed officers and other authorities drove by throughout the day.

Venezuelan Luis Escobar said his wife had advanced breast cancer and urged Maduro to accept the aid. In tears, he described how his wife was unable to get treatment in Venezuela and that by the time they were able to see a doctor in Colombia, her illness had significantly progressed.

Escobar says that he doesn’t want other Venezuelans to suffer his wife’s dire fate. “I am here because, unfortunately, my wife is going to die,” Escobar said. “But today I am here for Venezuelans who are suffering the same as my wife. The world has to know about this.”

Associated Press writer Christine Armario contributed from Cucuta, Colombia.

Foe accused by Maduro says Venezuela military is fracturing

August 15, 2018

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — The exiled opposition leader accused by Venezuelan authorities of directing a failed plot to assassinate President Nicolas Maduro says the greatest threat to the embattled socialist leader may be his detractors in uniform standing quietly behind him.

Julio Borges, who once led Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly, said Tuesday that the arrests of two high-ranking military officers in connection with the attack using drones loaded with plastic explosives is yet another signal that fractures within the nation’s armed forces are growing.

“The conflict today is within the government — not just at the political level, but more importantly within the armed forces,” Borges said in an interview with The Associated Press in Colombia’s capital.

His comments came hours after Venezuela’s chief prosecutor announced the arrest of Gen. Alejandro Perez and Col. Pedro Zambrano from Venezuela’s National Guard as part of the investigation into the Aug. 4 attack. Their alleged roles were not described.

Authorities said they have arrested 14 people so far while Borges and other alleged conspirators are being sought. Maduro has accused Borges of plotting with others to train anti-government saboteurs in Colombia and transport the drones and explosives used in the attack across the border into Venezuela.

Borges, who fled to Colombia with his family following the breakdown of negotiations with the government this year, said he had no prior knowledge of the plot. “Not at all,” he said in his simple, bare office in a drab building in Bogota.

Almost from the moment the attack took place, Venezuela’s opposition has warned that Maduro would use the incident to intensify a crackdown on his opponents as the government seeks to tamp down discontent over the country’s imploding economy. In the past week, the number of suspects and detainees has nearly doubled.

Among those in custody is another opposition lawmaker, Juan Requesens, who was charged with treason and attempted homicide. Officials released videotaped testimony of Requesens that they say shows an admission of involvement in the alleged plot, but he never mentions the attack itself. In the video, Requesens is heard telling investigators that he helped Borges ferry one of the alleged ringleaders into Venezuela from Colombia.

Relatives of Requesens deny he participated in any plot. They say he is being unjustly jailed for being an outspoken critic of Maduro’s government and policies that the opposition blames for Venezuela’s severe shortages of food and medicine as well as hyperinflation that the International Monetary Fund has said could reach 1 million percent by year’s end.

The drone attack came as Maduro was delivering a speech at a military ceremony in Caracas. Video footage of the event being aired live on state television shows Maduro, his wife and several other high-ranking officials suddenly looking up to the sky. The video then pans to hundreds of uniformed soldiers scrambling out of their formation in panic.

Authorities say two drones were aimed at the stage where Maduro was speaking but the military succeeded in knocking one off its path electronically while the other crashed into a nearby apartment building. Seven soldiers were injured but Maduro was not harmed.

Since taking over Venezuela’s presidency in 2013 following the death of Hugo Chavez, Maduro has sought to maintain the loyalty of the armed forces by awarding troops outsized bonuses and bestowing officers with top government posts. With Venezuela reeling economically, and its oil production collapsed to levels unseen since the 1940s, that support has become even more important.

Maduro and top military commanders dispute the idea that dissention is growing in the armed forces, but analysts say discontent has been brewing among rank-and-file soldiers, many of whom now need to find second jobs in order to put food on their families’ tables.

“Maduro is facing a divorce with the armed forces, which is apparent in the various rebellions that have taken place in recent months,” Borges said. “That’s opened a road which is irreversible.” The drone incident was not the first attack targeting Maduro’s government. Rogue police officer Oscar Perez stole a helicopter and flew it over the capital in June 2017, launching grenades at the Supreme Court building. He and several comrades died in a gunbattle with police after months on the lam. A year ago, a small band of armed men assaulted an important military base.

Attorney Alonso Medina Roa said 154 members of the military have been detained in recent months as discontent and instability escalates within the armed forces. Borges, the founder of the Justice First party, served as the opposition’s top negotiator in the failed dialogue with the government and is one of the beleaguered anti-government movement’s most visible leaders.

Maduro has called him the mastermind behind the drone attack and Venezuelan officials have requested his extradition from Colombia. “Borges you are an assassin,” Maduro said on state television. “Life gave you the chance to conduct politics freely in Venezuela but you’ve turned into a killer in Colombia.”

Borges brushed off Maduro’s allegation, describing it as one more baseless charge by a government that regularly claims to have stymied opposition attacks. “Fear is the government’s last resort left,” Borges said. “They want to appear like a strong government. And they’re not.”

Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman contributed to this report.

Venezuelan government: Drone strikes targeted Maduro

August 05, 2018

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Drones armed with explosives detonated near Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro Saturday in an apparent assassination attempt that took place while he was delivering a speech to hundreds of soldiers being broadcast live on television, officials said.

Caught by surprise mid-speech, Maduro and his wife, Cilia Flores, looked up at the sky and winced after hearing the sound of an explosion pierce the air. “This was an attempt to kill me,” he said later in an impassioned retelling of the events. “Today they attempted to assassinate me.”

Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez said the incident took place shortly after 5:30 p.m. as Maduro was celebrating the National Guard’s 81st anniversary. The visibly shaken head of state said he saw a “flying device” that exploded before his eyes. He thought it might be a pyrotechnics display in honor of the event.

Within seconds, Maduro said he heard a second explosion and pandemonium ensued. Bodyguards escorted Maduro out of the event and television footage showed uniformed soldiers standing in formation quickly scattering from the scene.

He said the “far right” working in coordination with detractors in Bogota and Miami, including Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, were responsible. Some of the “material authors” of the apparent attack have been detained.

“The investigation will get to the bottom of this,” he said. “No matter who falls.” Venezuela’s government routinely accuses opposition activists of plotting to attack and overthrow Maduro, a deeply unpopular leader who was recently elected to a new term in office in a vote decried by dozens of nations. Maduro has steadily moved to concentrate power as the nation reels from a crippling economic crisis.

In the midst of near-daily protests last year, a rogue police officer flew a stolen helicopter over the capital and launched grenades at several government buildings. Oscar Perez was later killed in a deadly gun battle after over six months on the lam.

Attorney General Tarek William Saab said the attempted assassination targeted not only Maduro, but rather the military’s entire high command on stage with the president. Prosecutors have already launched their investigation and obtained critical details from the suspects in custody, said Saab, adding that he would give more details Monday.

“We are in the midst of a wave of civil war in Venezuela,” Saab said. Firefighters at the scene of the blast disputed the government’s version of events. Three local authorities said there had been a gas tank explosion inside an apartment near Maduro’s speech where smoke could be seen streaming out of a window. They provided no further details on how they had reached that conclusion.

A Colombian official with the president’s office described Maduro’s claims that Santos was involved in the attack as baseless. Adding to the confusion, a little known group calling itself Soldiers in T-shirts claimed responsibility, saying it planned to fly two drones loaded with explosives at the president, but government soldiers shot them down before reaching its target. The Associated Press could not independently verify the authenticity of the message.

“We showed that they are vulnerable,” the group said in a tweet. “It was not successful today, but it is just a matter of time.” The organization did not respond to a message from The Associated Press.

David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America who has spent decades researching Venezuela, said the incident did not appear to be a staged attack by Maduro’s government for political gain.

The “amateurish” attack prompted embarrassing images of Maduro cut off mid-sentence with droves of soldiers running away in fear, making the president appear vulnerable, Smilde noted. Despite the optics, Smilde said he suspected that Maduro would nonetheless find a way to take advantage of it.

“He will use it to concentrate power,” Smilde said. “Whoever did this, he’ll use it to further restrict liberty and purge the government and armed forces.” The event had been just one more of many Maduro routinely holds with members of the military, a key faction of Venezuelan society whose loyalty he has clung to as the nation struggles with crippling hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine.

“We are going to bet for the good of our country,” Maduro declared triumphantly moments before the explosion. “The hour of the economy recovery has come.” Images being shared on social media showed officers surrounding Maduro with what appeared to be a black bullet-proof barrier as they escorted him from the site. Maduro said at no point did he panic, confident the military would protect him.

“That drone came after me,” he said. “But there was a shield of love that always protects us. I’m sure I’ll live for many more years.”

Armario reported from Miami, Florida. Associated Press video journalist Clbyburn Saint John contributed to this report.

Angry families demand facts on deadly Venezuela jail riot

March 29, 2018

VALENCIA, Venezuela (AP) — Distraught families are clamoring for information about detained relatives following a fire that Venezuela’s chief prosecutor says killed 68 people when it swept through the cells of the state police station.

Angry relatives fought with police outside the facility Wednesday after being unable to get any information on casualties from Wednesday’s fire, which townspeople said erupted after a disturbance involving detainees. Officers used tear gas to disperse the crowd, and local officials would confirm only that there were fatalities.

Late Wednesday, Attorney General Tarek William Saab said on his official Twitter account that 68 people were dead and nearly all of them were prisoners. He said the dead included two women who were staying overnight at the station, but he didn’t provide any further details.

Saab said four prosecutors had been named to determine what happened at the state police headquarters in Valencia, a town in Carabobo state about 100 miles (160 kilometers) west of Caracas. It was one of the worst jail disasters in Venezuela, where human rights groups complain about poor conditions in prisons and jails. A fire at a prison in the western state of Zulia killed more than 100 inmates in 1994.

With tears streaking cheeks, people waiting outside the station Wednesday said dozens of detainees had been kept in squalid conditions and they feared the worst for their loved ones. Some people buried their hands in their faces. Others had to be supported by friends and family as they collapsed in despair. Some wept quietly and clutched their hands in prayer.

“I don’t know if my son is dead or alive!” cried Aida Parra, who said she last saw her son the previous day, when she took food to him. “They haven’t told me anything.” Nearby, National Guard troops wearing flak jackets and carrying rifles slung across their backs walked in and out of the station. Fire trucks and ambulances stood outside. Unused stretchers leaned against a wall.

A Window to Freedom, a nonprofit group that monitors conditions at Venezuela’s jails and prisons, said preliminary but unconfirmed information indicated the riot began when an armed detainee shot an officer in the leg. Shortly after that a fire broke out, with flames growing quickly as the blaze spread to mattresses in the cells, it said. Rescuers apparently had to break a hole through a wall to free some of the prisoners inside.

Photos shared by the group showed prisoners being taken out on stretchers, their limbs frozen in awkward positions as skin peeled off. Carlos Nieto Palma, director of A Window to Freedom, said officials should be held accountable for failing to address the poor conditions in police station jails. The group said overcrowding has become common throughout Venezuela, with detainees being kept long past customary brief holding periods before being let go or sent to larger jails to await trial.

“It’s grave and alarming,” Nieto Palma said. “What happened today in Carabobo is a sign of that.” Opposition lawmaker Juan Miguel Matheus demanded that the pro-government leader of Carabobo state inform relatives about what happened.

“The desperation of relatives should not be played with,” he said. Clashes between prisoners and guards are not uncommon in Venezuela. Inmates are frequently able to obtain weapons and drugs with the help of corrupt guards and heavily armed groups control cellblock fiefdoms.

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