In Venezuela: Hoax or not, Venezuela chopper caper spells trouble



A handout released by the company that produced the movie "Suspended Death" in which helicopter pilot Oscar Perez played a role. He has been identified as the helicopter pilot responsible for a grenade attack on the Venezuelan Supreme Court

Venezuelans disagree on whether a helicopter grenade attack claimed by rogue cops was a coup or a hoax. Either way, it shows security forces risk turning against the government.

Venezuelans disagree on whether a helicopter grenade attack claimed by rogue cops was a coup or a hoax. Either way, it shows security forces risk turning against the government.

Authorities said they were still hunting the man accused of piloting the helicopter from which grenades were dropped on the Supreme Court on Monday: Oscar Perez, a cop who also happens to have appeared in an action film.

Local people, opposition leaders and some analysts suspect he is just a poser hired by the government to justify it cracking down on its opponents.

For others, the most important thing it highlighted is the delicate role played by the security forces in Venezuela's potentially explosive crisis.

"We call on the people to remain calm," said the head of the armed forces, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, "but also to remain on alert in case of an escalation."

Testing loyalties

Analysts at consultancy Eurasia Group judged that the grenade attack "seems to be individually motivated rather than a government conspiracy or coordinated attempt with other security or military actors."

But they warned in a note that the attack came as anti-government protests "are turning more violent and testing the loyalties of the security apparatus."

Despite being widely blamed for a desperate economic crisis, Maduro retains the public backing of the military high command. Analysts say that is key to him remaining in power.

But there is movement in the ranks. Last week Maduro said he had replaced the heads of the army, navy, central strategic command and the military police.

Venezuela has seen three attempted military coups since 1992.

Unrest has mounted over the past three months as opponents demanding elections to remove Maduro have staged daily street protests.

Demonstrators have accused police of attacking them.

On Thursday state prosecutors said in a statement they were bringing charges against the recently-removed head of the military police, Antonio Benavides Torres, for alleged human rights violations.

But the opposition also knows that some officers sympathize with their side.

"This issue about the helicopter is a clear signal of the discontent in this country," said senior opposition leader Henrique Capriles.

"There is internal division, in the police, the national guard and all the institutions."

Distracting attention?

The government said Tuesday the helicopter used in the attack had been found in Osma, a town near Caracas, but no arrests had been made.

Perez appeared in a video released online around the time of the attack claiming he was a "warrior of God" and urging an uprising against the government. He has not appeared since.

Foreign Minister Moncada said some in the opposition were "acting crazy" by alleging that "this was a lie made up by the government, that we did it on purpose to distract the public's attention" from the crisis.

The interior ministry issued an international arrest order for Perez, 36. It accused him of links to the CIA.

Maduro has regularly claimed the opposition is plotting against him with US backing.

The opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition distanced itself from the attack.

"This is not the way the coalition does things," said opposition lawmaker Juan Guaido.

"The MUD demands democratic change only by peaceful means."

The opposition Thursday continued with its street protests against Maduro's constitutional reform plan.

"Some people say it is a hoax, some say it is real," opposition legislative speaker Julio Borges told reporters on Tuesday.

"Whatever it is, it is very serious. It all points to one conclusion: that the situation in Venezuela is unsustainable."



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