Juan Guaido aide accused of being part of 'terrorist cell' by Venezuelan government
Canada's Chrystia Freeland, Mike Pompeo of U.S. call for immediate release of Roberto Marrero
Venezuela's interior minister said Thursday that authorities had arrested opposition leader Juan Guaido's chief of staff for his involvement in an alleged "terrorist cell" that was planning attacks against high-level political figures.
Interior Minister Nestor Reverol, during an appearance on state television, showed an image of two rifles, which he called evidence collected against Roberto Marrero. President Nicolas Maduro indicated there could be more arrests, saying on national television that his government is dismantling a broader "terrorist" network.
Marrero is being investigated for crimes including an alleged plot to kill Maduro, the chief prosecutor's office said.
The opposition had said earlier that intelligence agents had planted weapons in Marrero's house during a pre-dawn raid, a move by Maduro that the U.S. administration said would "not go unanswered."
In January, Guaido invoked the constitution to assume the interim presidency after declaring Maduro's 2018 re-election a fraud, and has been recognized by dozens of Western nations as the country's legitimate leader.
Maduro, who has overseen a dramatic collapse of the OPEC nation's economy, has called Guaido a puppet of the United States and said he should "face justice," but has not explicitly ordered his arrest.
"They have kidnapped @ROBERTOMARRERO, my chief of staff," Guaido said in a post on Twitter, adding the Caracas residences of Marrero and opposition legislator Sergio Vergara had been raided before dawn. "We do not know their whereabouts. They should be freed immediately."
The development prompted quick condemnation from the U.S., with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on social media calling for Marrero's release, stating, "we will hold accountable those involved."
Appalled by the news that <a href="https://twitter.com/jguaido?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@jguaido</a>’s Chief of Staff, <a href="https://twitter.com/ROBERTOMARRERO?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@ROBERTOMARRERO</a>, has been illegally detained by the Maduro regime. Intimidation and fear will not stop the return of democracy to <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Venezuela?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Venezuela</a>. Those responsible must be held accountable.—@cafreeland
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, instrumental in the Lima Group seeking solutions for the Venezuela crisis, and U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton followed shortly after with similar calls.
The UN human rights office tweeted its concern over Marrero's detention and urged the government to respect due process and reveal his whereabouts. The Lima Group regional bloc also denounced Marrero's arrest and said Maduro was responsible for his safety.
Venezuelan opposition lawmaker Vergara, whose nearby residence was also searched, said Marrero was taken by intelligence agents in the overnight operation in Caracas. Vergara said he was woken up by heavy banging at his door and agents pointed weapons at him.
'Keep up the fight'
Vergara and Marrero both accompanied Guaido as he travelled around South America in February to drum up diplomatic support for his government, defying a travel ban imposed by the pro-government Supreme Court. He later entered the country via Venezuela's principal airport without being detained by immigration officials.
Dozens of countries, including Canada, the U.S., major European powers and most South American nations, say Maduro's rule is illegitimate and have backed Guaido until free and fair elections can be held.
At a news conference Thursday, Guaido said that the raids by agents from the SEBIN intelligence service on the residences of Marrero and Vergara showed Maduro's "weakness" and that attempts to intimidate him would not derail the opposition campaign.
"As they cannot take the interim president prisoner, so they seek out people closest to him, threaten relatives, carry out kidnappings," said Guaido.
Marrero recorded a voice message as agents were trying to enter his home in Caracas's upscale Las Mercedes neighbourhood.
Guaido's press team forwarded the message to reporters.
"I am in my house and the SEBIN is here. Unfortunately, they have come for me. Keep up the fight, don't stop and look after [Guaido]," Marrero said.
Venezuela is reeling from annual inflation topping two million per cent, which has fuelled malnutrition and preventable disease and spurred an exodus of more than three million citizens in since 2015.
Maduro says his government is the victim of an "economic war" led by his political adversaries, and blames U.S. financial and oil sector sanctions for the country's situation.
With files from The Associated Press