Venezuelan agents have detained a top aide of opposition leader Juan Guaido, using a tow truck to drag his vehicle away with him inside, in the first major detention since a failed attempt last week to spark a military uprising to bring down President Nicolas Maduro’s government.
Edgar Zambrano, vice president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, said on Twitter at about 6.40pm local time on Wednesday (22:40 GMT) that a unit from the SEBIN intelligence agency had surrounded his vehicle outside the headquarters of his Democratic Action party in the capital, Caracas.
“We were surprised by the SEBIN, and after refusing to let us leave our vehicle, they used a tow truck to forcibly transfer us directly to the (SEBIN headquarters) Helicoide,” he said.
Venezuela’s pro-Maduro Constituent Assembly agreed on Tuesday to strip Zambrano and six other legislators of their parliamentary immunity to allow their future prosecution. The opposition does not recognise the assembly’s decisions.
The Supreme Court had earlier accused those legislators of conspiracy, rebellion and treason, and accused another three opposition politicians of the same crimes on Wednesday. The opposition says Maduro has stacked the court with his own supporters.
On April 30, Guaido tried to set off a military uprising to overthrow Maduro, but there were no widespread defections among soldiers and the plan fizzled out. Maduro denounced it as a coup attempt.
“One of the principal conspirators of the coup has just been arrested,” Diosdado Cabello, head of the Constituent Assembly, said in comments broadcast on state television.
“They will have to pay before the courts for the failed coup that they attempted,” he said.
For his part, Guaido said on Twitter: “The regime has kidnapped the first vice president.”
The head of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, said: “We demand the SEBIN stop the intimidation, respect the legislators” parliamentary immunities, and immediately release Edgar Zambrano.”
In January, Guaido invoked Venezuela’s constitution to declare himself interim president, saying Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate. The United States and most other Western nations have recognised Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.
He has said he does not recognise decisions emanating from the Maduro government, including the Constituent Assembly, which is controlled by the ruling Socialist Party.
The Constituent Assembly removed Guaido’s parliamentary immunity in early April. Authorities have not tried to arrest him since then, but Maduro has said he will “face justice.” US President Donald Trump’s administration has threatened Maduro’s government with a harsh response should it ever detain Guaido.
“What we have seen so far is a government that has been extremely careful in these past three months when dealing with the opposition, especially with Guaido because the US has said that it will take it very seriously any attempts to damage his physical integrity,” Al Jazeera’s Teresa Bo, reporting from Caracas, said.
“But what we know so far is that 15 lawmakers were stripped of their immunity, and three of them have already been detained.”
Earlier on Wednesday, the Supreme Court’s head, Maikel Moreno, rebuffed the US government’s threats to sanction his court’s members if they did not reject Maduro’s government and Guaido.
The US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Moreno and the seven principal members of the court’s constitutional chamber in 2017 for rulings that “usurped the authority” of the National Assembly.
US Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday the Trump administration would soon sanction the 25 remaining members of the court. Pence said the US was lifting economic sanctions on a former Venezuelan general who turned against Maduro in order to encourage other Maduro allies to follow suit.