World / Crime & Legal

Venezuelan general nabbed in drone assassination plot against Maduro as suspect list grows to 34

AP, AFP-JIJI

The investigation into an assassination attempt on Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro using drones has widened to include the arrest of two high-ranking military officers, the nation’s top prosecutor said Tuesday.

The list of suspects — including an exiled opposition lawmaker — has now risen to 34, and officials are seeking arrests in Colombia, Peru and the United States, Attorney General Tarek William Saab said.

“There are 14 detainees who have been presented and charged before the criminal courts,” he said.

That list of suspects and detainees has nearly doubled since last week, when authorities said they had eight of 19 suspects in custody.

Officials say an assassination plot involved two drones loaded with plastic explosives that detonated near Maduro as he spoke Aug. 4 at a military celebration in the capital of Caracas.

The first explosion in front of the grandstand caused hundreds of soldiers standing in parade formation to scatter. Seven soldiers were injured, but Maduro and several senior officials nearby were unharmed.

The incident came at a time of political and economic crisis in Venezuela, a once-wealthy oil power that is suffering runaway inflation and shortages of food and medicine that have driven hundreds of thousands to flee abroad.

About 2.3 million Venezuelans have fled their crisis-hit country mainly because of a lack of food as severe shortages of medicine has left thousands at risk, the U.N. spokesman said Tuesday.

“People cite the lack of food as their main reason for leaving,” said U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric. About 1.3 million Venezuelans are suffering from malnourishment.

The two detained officers were identified by Saab as Col. Pedro Zambrano Hernandez and Gen. Alejandro Perez Gamez of the National Guard. He did not describe their suspected roles.

A 29-year-old opposition lawmaker, Juan Requesens, is also under arrest and charged with treason and attempted homicide.

Officials have released a videotaped statement of Requesens that they say shows an admission, but he never appears to confess or mention the attack.

It shows Requesens telling investigators he helped prominent opposition lawmaker Julio Borges, who lives in Bogota, bring a man into Venezuela from Colombia.

Relatives of Requesens say he is jailed for being an outspoken critic of Maduro’s government, but that he never participated in a crime.

Venezuelan officials have asked Colombia to extradite Borges, and Maduro has offered to show the FBI evidence in support of their case against exiled Venezuelans living in Miami suspected of financing the failed plot.

Borges said Tuesday that the arrest of two high-ranking officers is yet another signal that fractures within the nation’s armed forces are growing.

“The conflict today is within the government — not just at the political level, but more importantly within the armed forces,” Borges said in an interview in Colombia’s capital.

Borges, who fled to Colombia with his family following the breakdown of negotiations with the government this year, said he had no prior knowledge of the plot.

Almost from the moment the attack took place, Venezuela’s opposition has warned that Maduro would use the incident to intensify a crackdown on his opponents as the government seeks to tamp down discontent over the country’s imploding economy. In the past week, the number of suspects and detainees has nearly doubled.