Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro survives drone ‘attack’
Controversial leader says a drone with explosives was ‘coming for me’ during televised speech in Caracas.
A drone loaded with explosives detonated near a military event where Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was giving a speech, but he escaped unharmed in what the embattled leader called an assassination attempt.
Seven people were wounded on Saturday in the apparent attack, which came as Maduro celebrated the National Guard’s 81st anniversary in the capital, Caracas.
Maduro later said “everything points” to a right-wing plot that an initial investigation suggested was linked to Colombia and the US state of Florida, where many Venezuelan exiles live. Several perpetrators were caught, he said, without elaborating.
“This was an assassination attempt, they tried to assassinate me,” Maduro said in a televised address. “That drone was coming for me but there was a shield of love. I am sure I will live for many more years.”
Later on Sunday, Interior Minister Nestor Reverol said that six people had been detained over the incident.
One of the six suspects detained had a pending arrest warrant for a 2017 attack on a military base, and a second had been arrested in 2014 for participating in anti-government street protests, he said.
Earlier, a little-known group called the National Movement of Soldiers in T-shirts claimed responsibility for the attack. In a series of posts on social media, the group said it planned to fly two drones but snipers shot them down.
“We demonstrated that they are vulnerable. We didn’t have success today, but it’s just a question of time,” said the group.
It said it was founded in 2014 to bring together all of Venezuela’s “groups of resistance”.
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 he would give more details Monday.
“We are in the midst of a wave of civil war in Venezuela,” Saab said.
Eyes to the sky
State television was broadcasting Maduro’s speech at the National Guard anniversary live when the incident took place.
“We are going to bet for the good of our country,” Maduro declared triumphantly moments before the sound of an explosion pierced the air. “The hour of the economic recovery has come.”
Seconds later Maduro and his wife, Cilia Flores, looked up to the sky and winced.
The cameras then turned to a wide shot of uniformed military officers standing at attention in neat lines as they broke rank and began running. The transmission then cut off. Images shared on social media showed officers surrounding Maduro with what appeared to be black bullet-proof shields as they escorted him from the site.
Smoke could be seen coming out a building window.
Firefighters at the scene of the blast disputed the government’s version of events, The Associated Press reported.
The news agency cited three local officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, as saying the incident was actually a gas tank explosion inside an apartment near the site of Maduro’s speech.
The president didn’t comment on the firefighters’ accounts.
Maduro named Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos as being behind the attack, but gave no evidence to back that up.
“The name of Juan Manuel Santos is behind this attack … the initial investigations point to Bogota,” Maduro said.
A Colombian government source told Reuters news agency that Maduro’s allegation was “absurd”, and that Santos was celebrating his granddaughter’s baptism on Saturday.
Political analyst Sonia Schott said it was not the first time Maduro has accused Colombia of intervening in Venezuela.
She told Al Jazeera, however, she believes Saturday’s incident “was probably started among Venezuelans – among this military group”.
Schott pointed to an incident last year in which rogue police officer Oscar Perez hijacked a helicopter and fired at government buildings in what he said was an action against a dictator. Perez was later killed by Venezuelan forces. That incident took place in the face of near-daily protests in the country.
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 countries.
Maduro, a former bus driver who replaced former president Hugo Chavez after his death in 2013, has steadily moved to concentrate power as the nation reels from a crippling economic catastrophe.
The country is suffering under the fifth year of a severe economic crisis that has sparked malnutrition, hyperinflation and mass emigration.
The president says he is battling an “imperialist” plot to destroy socialism and take over Venezuela’s oil. Opponents accuse him of authoritarianism, saying he has destroyed a once-wealthy economy and ruthlessly crushed dissent.