Caracas (AFP) – Venezuela’s military was on Monday hunting an ex-officer and a lieutenant who led uniformed rebels on a weekend raid to grab weapons from an army base, fueling fears the country’s worsening crisis could tip into armed conflict.
The defense minister and head of the armed forces, General Vladimir Padrino, said the ex-National Guard captain, Juan Carlos Caguaripano, and the lieutenant, Jefferson Gabriel Garcia, were behind Sunday’s attack on the base in the northwestern city of Valencia by 20 men in uniform.
They are “enemies of the nation,” Padrino said.
Just before the raid, Caguaripano posted a video online declaring it part of a “legitimate rebellion… to reject the murderous tyranny of (President) Nicolas Maduro.”
Appearing with more than a dozen uniformed men, some armed, he demanded a transitional government and “free elections.”
Maduro said on state television Sunday that the attack saw a three-hour firefight in which two of the rebels died and eight were captured, including another lieutenant who was involved.
Ten other attackers made off with an unspecified arsenal.
Caguaripano and Garcia “managed to flee and a special operation has been deployed to find and capture them” and recover the weapons, Padrino said.
He said Garcia had been in charge of the base’s weapons depot and acted as an accomplice from the inside, while Caguaripano had been discharged from the army in 2014 after multiple disciplinary offenses.
Padrino said most of the rebels were civilians with criminal records, contracted in Venezuela by people with links to pro-opposition sympathizers in Colombia and the United States.
He and Maduro described the attackers as “terrorists” and “mercenaries” and insisted they did not signify any fracturing of the army.
“This group was not acting for ideals or nationalist principles. They were paid from Miami by extreme-right groups linked to the Venezuelan opposition as well as foreign governments that maintain a hostile and interfering attitude…