Venezuela’s military said it seized three abandoned Colombian light combat vessels that soldiers found on Saturday while patrolling the Orinoco river, several days after the government accused its neighbour of aiding a failed invasion.
The boats were equipped with machine guns and ammunition but had no crew, the defence ministry said in a statement, adding they were discovered as part of a nationwide operation to guarantee Venezuela’s “freedom and sovereignty”.
Colombia’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request to comment. President Nicolas Maduro on Wednesday accused Colombian President Ivan Duque of enabling the operation, which Duque denied.
Venezuela charged two former US soldiers with “terrorism” and “conspiracy” for allegedly taking part in a failed armed incursion aimed at toppling Maduro.
Luke Alexander Denman and Airan Berry were among 31 people captured by the Venezuelan military, which said it thwarted an attempted invasion by mercenaries in the early hours of May 3.
Prosecutor General Tarek William Saab said on Friday they had been charged with “terrorism, conspiracy, illicit trafficking of weapons of war and [criminal] association”, and could face 25-30 years in prison.
Several attackers were reportedly killed in the ill-fated incursion.
Saab said Venezuela requested an international arrest warrant for the capture of Jordan Goudreau, a former US Army veteran who leads a Florida-based company that says it offers paid strategic security services. Goudreau said in media interviews he organised the operation in Venezuela.
Maduro has accused US President Donald Trump of being directly behind the invasion, which came at a time of high tension between Washington and Caracas, and Saab said on Friday the Venezuelans involved would be tried for “conspiracy with a foreign government”.
Trump rejected the accusation, telling Fox News on Friday: “If I wanted to go into Venezuela, I wouldn’t make a secret about it.
“I’d go in and they would do nothing about it. They would roll over. I wouldn’t send a small little group. No, no, no. It would be called an army,” he said. “It would be called an invasion.”
Venezuela announced on Monday it arrested the two former US special forces soldiers and on Wednesday Maduro, who showed the pair’s passports on state television, said they would be tried.
The US Army has confirmed they were former members of the Green Berets who were deployed to Iraq.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US government would “use every tool that we have available to try to get them back”.
In announcing the arrests, Saab claimed Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido, who is backed in his challenge to Maduro’s authority by the US and more than 50 countries, was behind the mission.
Saab accused Guaido of signing a $212m contract with “hired mercenaries” using funds seized by the US from the state oil company PDVSA.
Guaido has denied having any involvement in the incursion.
Saab blamed Goudreau and two opposition Venezuelan politicians, Miami-based political strategist Juan Rendon and exiled lawmaker Sergio Vergara, for involvement in the “design, financing, and execution” of the plan to invade and overthrow Maduro.
Rendon has said while he negotiated an agreement with Goudreau’s company Silvercorp USA late last year, he cut ties with him in November. He said Goudreau went forward with the failed operation on his own. Vergara did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The bungled operation has put pressure on Guaido, who has failed in his campaign to replace a president who has overseen a six-year economic collapse of the once prosperous OPEC nation and stands accused of human rights violations and rigging his 2018 re-election.
Guaido has largely held together a broad coalition of the anti-Maduro political parties that make up Venezuela’s notoriously divided opposition. But on Friday, one of the largest opposition parties aligned with Guaido – Justice First – criticised him over the failed raid.
“We radically reject the hiring of illegal groups,” Justice First said in a statement, calling on Guaido to “immediately dismiss the officials who – in the name of the interim presidency of the republic – established links with these illegal groups.”