Venezuela on Wednesday launched a nationwide manhunt for Oscar Perez, a day after the police official and sometime film actor allegedly hijacked a government helicopter, hurled grenades at the supreme court headquarters and fired shots at the interior ministry building.
In a televised statement, Interior Minister Nestor Reverol accused Perez of acting in concert with U.S. intelligence officials and of trying to accelerate the violence that has gripped Venezuela for nearly three months and left 76 people dead and more than 1,500 injured.
"A direct relation is proven between the author of this terrorist act and intelligence agencies of the United States," said Reverol, who did not name any U.S. officials but promised that proof of the link would be made public in coming days. The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the accusation.
Reverol, who formerly headed Venezuela's anti-drugs agency, was accused last August by U.S. prosecutors in New York of receiving bribes from drug traffickers in exchange for enforcement tip-offs.
He said that Perez conspired with an unspecified number of other individuals and that the government has asked Interpol to detain Perez if he leaves Venezuela.
Perez, 36, is an official with the top police investigative agency known by its initials CICPC. He was described by Reverol as a "deserter" who formerly flew for former interior minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres, a Maduro opponent. He had a role in a 2015 Spanish language movie titled "Death Suspended," a police drama based on a real kidnapping case.
While he remains at large, the helicopter he stole was found Wednesday in the northern coastal state of Vargas, the country's vice president, Tareck Asissami, announced.
The hijacking made international headlines and fueled speculation of a conspiracy within government agencies to topple President Nicolas Maduro, who called it a coup attempt. Nobody was hurt in the attack, and there was no indication Wednesday of any widespread rebellion in the armed forces or government agencies.
In the capital and cities across the country, anti-Maduro protesters continued to march Wednesday as they have since late March to protest food scarcities, hyperinflation and abuse of power.
The latest focus of their ire is Maduro's plan for a July 30 vote to dissolve the opposition controlled National Assembly and replace it with a convention charged with writing a new constitution.
During the helicopter's flight over downtown Caracas, Perez flew a banner with the words "350 Liberty," a reference to a constitutional clause giving citizens the right to ignore the commands of an abusive government.
In videos posted on his social media account, Perez is shown standing with other masked men reading statements in which he describes himself as a "nationalist" and "patriot."
Barely noticed in the confusion Tuesday was the invasion of the National Assembly building by dozens of armed pro-Maduro militia members known as "colectivos." The militias, which have been described as shock troops that Maduro uses to intimidate anti-government protesters, allegedly harassed two opposition members.
Also on Wednesday, the Maduro-controlled Supreme Court issued a decree stripping certain powers from the attorney general, Luisa Ortega Diaz. Ortega, whose office acts as a public advocate in cases of alleged government abuse, is one of the few officials to criticize Maduro, describing the proposed constitutional assembly as illegal.
At a news conference, she challenged the court's action.
"What we have here is state terrorism," she said. "Repression is rising."
Special correspondents Mogollon and Kraul reported from Caracas and Bogota respectively.
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3:20 p.m.: This article has been updated with government response to the hijacking, background on the political situation in Venezuela and news that the helicopter has been found.