Venezuela has detained a group of military officers who stole weapons and kidnapped four officials, the government said in a statement on Monday, hours after a social media video showed a sergeant demanding the removal of President Nicolas Maduro.
Protesters burned rubbish and a car outside the National Guard outpost where the officers were arrested in a sign of growing tensions following Maduro’s inauguration to a second term that many governments around the world have called illegitimate.
Though the incident signals discontent within the armed forces, it appeared to involve only low-ranking officers with little capacity to bring about change in the hyperinflationary economy that has inflicted food and medicine shortages on so many.
“The armed forces categorically reject this type of action, which is most certainly motivated by the dark interests of the extreme right,” the government said in a statement read out on state television.
Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez tweeted that those involved would be punished with the “full weight of the law”.
Maduro was inaugurated on January 10 under an avalanche of criticism that his leadership was illegitimate following a 2018 election that was boycotted by much of the opposition and viewed as fraudulent by many.
The president defended his government’s mandate, saying the Venezuelan people gave “legitimacy” to his administration “with their vote”.
Opposition leaders and exiled dissidents have called on the armed forces to turn against Maduro, which the president has denounced as efforts to encourage a coup against him.
Shortly after Maduro’s inauguration, the head of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly, Juan Guaido, said he was willing to assume the presidency until free and fair elections could be held if he had the support of the public and armed forces. He called for mass protests on Wednesday.
Early on Monday, videos circulated on Twitter of a group of armed soldiers standing in darkness while their apparent leader addressed the camera and called for Venezuelans to support their uprising.
“You all asked that we take to the streets to defend the constitution. Here we are. Here we have the troops, it’s today when the people come out to support us,” said the man in the video, who identified himself as Luis Bandres.
He said he was speaking from a military outpost in the Caracas neighbourhood of Cotiza, where the government said the group of officers was arrested.
Security forces surrounded the Cotiza outpost early in the morning. In response, several dozen residents barricaded streets and set fire to rubbish, according to Reuters witnesses. Troops fired tear gas to disperse them.
In videos circulating on social media, residents can be heard chanting “Don’t hand yourself in,” and “The people are with you.”
The United States and many Latin American countries say Maduro has become a dictator whose failed state-led policies have plunged Venezuela into its worst ever economic crisis, with inflation approaching two million percent.
Maduro says a US-directed “economic war” is trying to force him from power.