TOP STORY--Venezuela: Helicopter Strafes Court in 'Terrorist Attack'

By JOSHUA GOODMAN, Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A police helicopter fired on Venezuela's Supreme Court and Interior Ministry in what President Nicolas Maduro said was a thwarted terrorist attack aimed at ousting him from power.

The confusing incident, which may ratchet up tensions in a country already paralyzed by months of deadly anti-government protests, took place as Maduro was speaking live on state television Tuesday and as the high court handed down a series of rulings against the opposition.

He later said the helicopter had fired on the pro-government court with grenades, one of which didn't go off, helping avoid any loss of life.

Adding to the intrigue, pictures of a blue police helicopter carrying an anti-government banner appeared on social media around the same time as a video in which an apparent police pilot and budding action movie actor, identified as Oscar Perez, called for a rebellion against Maduro's "tyranny." He said he was part of a coalition of renegade members of the country's security forces.

Authorities said they were still searching for the man.

"We have two choices: be judged tomorrow by our conscience and the people or begin today to free ourselves from this corrupt government," the man said while reading from a manifesto in front of four figures dressed in fatigues, wearing ski masks and carrying assault rifles.

There was no sign of any other police or troops taking part an uprising.

Many of Maduro's opponents took to social media to accuse the president of orchestrating an elaborate ruse to justify a crackdown against those seeking to block his plans to rewrite the constitution. Venezuela has been roiled by anti-government protests the past three months that have left at least 75 people dead and hundreds injured.

Less than two hours later, still on state TV, Maduro sounded alternately calm and angry as he told the audience about what had happened in the airspace just beyond the presidential palace.

"It could've caused a tragedy with several dozen dead and injured," he said, calling it a "terrorist attack."

Information Minister Ernesto Villegas later read a statement accusing those in the helicopter of firing 15 shots against the Interior Ministry as a reception was taking place for 80 people celebrating national journalist's day. It then flew a short distance to the court, which was in session, and launched what he said were four Israeli-made grenades of "Colombian origin," two of them against national guardsmen protecting the building.

The pro-government president of the high court said there were no injuries from the attack and there were no visible signs of damage outside either of the government buildings Wednesday morning.

Villegas said security forces were being deployed to apprehend Perez as well as recover the stolen German-built Bolkow helicopter. Photos of the pilot standing in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington and a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter were displayed on state television to bolster the government's case that he was taking instructions from the CIA and the U.S. Embassy.

Perez, on his Instagram account, describes himself as a police investigator and tactical helicopter pilot whose passion is Venezuela. In 2015, he starred in a film called "Suspended Death" and several cinematic-like photos show him in fatigues bearing assault rifles, sky diving and standing in action poses with a German Shepard by his side.

National Assembly President Julio Borges expressed doubts about Maduro's version of events but cautioned that he and the rest of the opposition were still analyzing what happened.

"There are people who say it was a government-staged hoax, others who say it was real.... Whatever it was, it all points in the same direction: that the situation in Venezuela is unsustainable," he said in a radio interview Wednesday.

Maduro said Perez used to fly for his former interior minister, Miguel Rodriguez Torres, whom he accused of working for the CIA. Rodriguez Torres, who has been leading a campaign against Maduro made up of leftist supporters of the late Hugo Chavez, immediately dismissed the accusation as baseless.

As the drama was unfolding outside the court, inside magistrates were issuing a number of rulings further hemming in the opposition. One broadened the powers of the nation's ombudsman's office to allow it to conduct investigations that until now had been carried out exclusively by the chief prosecutor, a former loyalist who broke with Maduro over his plans to rewrite the constitution.

The helicopter incident capped a volatile 24 hours that began with widespread looting in the coastal city of Maracay on Monday night and continued Tuesday when opposition lawmakers got into a heated scuffle with security forces assigned to protect the National Assembly.

At least 68 supermarkets, pharmacies and liquor stores were looted and several government offices burned following anti-government protests in Maracay, which is about a 90 minute drive from Caracas.

Maduro condemned the violence but suggested he would fight to stay in power even if the government loses an election.

"We will never surrender. And what we couldn't accomplish through votes we will with weapons," he said in remarks that are likely to further inflame passions.

On Tuesday, opposition lawmakers got into fisticuffs with national guardsmen as they tried to enter the National Assembly. In a video circulating on social media, the commander of a national guard unit protecting the legislature aggressively shoved Borges as he's walking away from a heated discussion.

Not until after 9 p.m. did a small group of pro-government activists surrounding the congress allow a few dozen lawmakers and journalists to leave the neo-classical building.

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