Venezuela says rogue officers captured after sergeant demands president's removal

Venezuela's government says it has captured a group of military officers who stole weapons and kidnapped four officials, hours after a social media video showed a sergeant demanding the removal of President Nicolas Maduro.

Opposition leaders and exiled dissidents have called on military to turn against president

Protesters demonstrate against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in front of the Cotiza Bolivarian National Guard headquarters in Caracas on Monday, after a video demanding the president's removal was posted online. (Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images)

Venezuela's government says it has captured a group of military officers who stole weapons and kidnapped four officials, hours after a social media video showed a sergeant demanding the removal of President Nicolas Maduro.

An unspecified number of officers early on Monday attacked a National Guard outpost in the Caracas neighbourhood of Cotiza, a kilometre from the presidential Miraflores palace, where they met "firm resistance," the government said in a statement. Witnesses reported hearing gunshots at about 3 a.m. local time.

Protesters burned trash and a car outside the National Guard outpost where the officers were arrested in a sign of growing tensions following Maduro's inauguration to a second term, which governments around the world have called illegitimate.

Though the incident signals discontent within the armed forces, it appeared to involve only low-ranking officers with little capacity to force change in the hyperinflationary economy as many people suffer from shortages of food and medicine.

"The armed forces categorically reject this type of action, which is most certainly motivated by the dark interests of the extreme right," the government said in a statement read out on state television Monday.

Maduro was inaugurated on Jan. 10 under an avalanche of criticism that his leadership was illegitimate following a 2018 election widely viewed as fraudulent, with countries around the world disavowing his government.

Opposition leaders and exiled dissidents have called on the armed forces to turn against Maduro, which the president has denounced as efforts to encourage a coup against him.

'Defend the constitution'

The head of the opposition-controlled congress, Juan Guaido, said the uprising was a sign of the depressed state of mind of the armed forces. Congress was committed to offering guarantees to officers who helped with "the constitution's reconstitution," he said, though he did not want the military to fall into internal conflict.

"We want it to stand as one man on the side of the people, the constitution, and against the usurpation," he said on Twitter.

In the videos that circulated on Twitter, a group of armed soldiers stand in darkness while their apparent leader addresses the camera and calls for Venezuelans to support their uprising.

"You all asked that we take to the streets to defend the constitution. Here we are. Here we have the troops, it's today when the people come out to support us," said the man in the video, who identified himself as Luis Bandres.

The government said the men took two vehicles from a police station in the Macarao district in the west of Caracas before driving to a barracks in the eastern Petare slum, where they stole an arms cache and kidnapped four officials.

After they attacked the Cotiza outpost in the early morning, security forces surrounded them. In response, several dozen residents barricaded streets and set fire to rubbish as they chanted "Don't hand yourself in," according to Reuters witnesses. Troops fired tear gas to disperse them.

"These soldiers are right to rise up. We need a political change, because we don't have any water or electricity," said Angel Rivas, a 49-year-old labourer at the protest.

Call for demonstrations

Hours later, the government-stacked Supreme Court said it was throwing out recent measures by the National Assembly that declared Maduro's presidency illegitimate, deepening a standoff with the opposition-controlled legislature.

The justices ruled the new leadership of congress itself is invalid and urged the country's chief prosecutor to investigate whether congressional leaders had acted criminally in openly defying the nation's constitution.

Security forces fire tear gas at protesters near the National Guard outpost in Caracas on Monday. (Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images)

Guaido shrugged off the court's warning and reiterated his call for people to take to the streets Wednesday — a historic date commemorating the end of Venezuela's military dictatorship in 1958 — to demand Maduro abandon power.

"The National Assembly is the only institution elected by the people of Venezuela," Guaido said at a news conference at the legislature.

Dozens of foreign governments have refused to recognize Maduro's second term, some saying they are ready to recognize Guaido as interim president until fair elections can be held.

Maduro says a U.S.-directed "economic war" is trying to force him from power.

With files from The Associated Press