9 May 2019

Venezuela crisis: Guaido's deputy arrested in Caracas

6:30 pm on 9 May 2019

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido's deputy has been detained by the country's intelligence services.

FILE - In this Jan. 5, 2019 file photo, incoming National Assembly Vice President Edgar Zambrano, left, arrives with incoming National Assembly President Juan Guaido, center, and Omar Barboza, outgoing president of Venezuela's National Assembly,

National Assembly Vice President Edgar Zambrano, left, National Assembly President Juan Guaido and the assembly's outgoing president Omar Barboza, arrive at a special meeting of the assembly in Caracas in January. Photo: AP

It is a clear sign that President Nicolas Maduro's government has begun going after foes tied to a failed attempt to stir up a military uprising last week.

National Assembly Vice President Edgar Zambrano was leaving his Democratic Action party's headquarters when he was surprised by a commando unit from the feared SEBIN intelligence agency who surrounded his car.

About 30 minutes later, the officers towed the vehicle away with the lawmaker still inside, at the same time that Mr Maduro was speaking live on state TV inaugurating an agricultural project. Neighbours looking on shouted "assassins" as the heavily armed agents pulled away.

"We democrats we will keep fighting!" Mr Zambrano tweeted as he was hauled off.

Opposition Deputy of the National Assembly Stalin Gonzalez talks to journalists at the Democratic Action political party headquarters in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, May 8, 2019, after National Assembly Vice President Edgar Zambrano was arrested

Opposition Deputy of the National Assembly Stalin Gonzalez talks to journalists at the Democratic Action political party headquarters in Caracas shortly after Edgar Zambrano was taken away. Photo: AP

The arrest was the first following the opposition's fizzled uprising that started early on 30 April outside a Caracas air base.

It was led by Juan Guaidó, head of the National Assembly who is leading the United States-backed effort to end what he calls Mr Maduro's dictatorship.

Mr Zambrano, 63, was one of the first opposition leaders to answer Mr Guaido's call for an insurrection, going to the bridge in Caracas where the opposition leader had appeared at dawn with a small cadre of soldiers ready to rebel against Mr Maduro.

On the highway overpass, Mr Zambrano embraced popular opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who broke house arrest to take part. Mr Zambrano also thanked the handful of rebel National Guardsmen, who wore blue armbands as symbols of their allegiance to Mr Guaido's movement.

A lawyer by training, Mr Zambrano is seen as a conciliatory figure within the opposition. He is close to Henry Ramos, the former head of congress who has been accused of taking part in an earlier alleged conspiracy to oust Mr Maduro. He took up his role as Mr Guaido's deputy as part of a power-sharing arrangement among the biggest parties.

Government officials had announced that Mr Zambrano and eight other opposition lawmakers faced investigation on charges of "betraying the homeland" and "instigating an insurrection," for their roles in last week's unrest.

Zambrano denies he has committed any crime

Two hours before his arrest, Mr Zambrano had told the Associated Press in a phone interview that he was not going to hide because "I have not committed any crime."

Government supporters have been pushing Mr Maduro to order arrests in the aftermath of the failed uprising, which is the closest the opposition has ever come to ousting the president. But analysts say there are limits to how far Mr Maduro can crack down, and that any attempt to arrest Mr Guaido risks inviting a strong response from the US, which has warned of "grave consequences" should the opposition leader be harmed.

Earlier Wednesday, Mr Maduro and the head of Venezuela's top court rejected a US threat to apply sanctions to all its judges. They accused the Trump administration of trying to manipulate the crisis-wracked nation's justice system and foment a coup.

Pence threatens US sanctions for Venezuela's judges

Maikel Moreno, president of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, pushed back at comments by Vice President Mike Pence, who said the US would extend sanctions to all members of the Venezuelan high court if they continued to be a "political tool" of Mr Maduro.

"This unlawful, despicable and intolerable action violates the norms and principles of international law that govern relations between civilized nations," Mr Moreno, a political ally of Mr Maduro, said in a nationally broadcast TV appearance. Mr Moreno already faces US sanctions.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaking during a press conference at the Miraflores Presidential Palace in Caracas, Venezuela on March 11, 2019.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro. Photo: AFP

There is little sign that tension will break between Mr Maduro and Mr Guaido, who is backed by the United States and more than 50 other nations.

Mr Guaido on Wednesday took to the streets of at least two coastal communities outside the capital, pushing to keep up the opposition's rejuvenated momentum. He met with supporters in his hometown of La Guaira and surrounding communities, where he was greeted by cheers, hugs and fist bumps.

More than 3 million Venezuelans have left their homeland in recent years amid skyrocketing inflation and severe shortages of food and medicine. Mr Pence and other Trump administration officials blame Mr Maduro's socialist policies and government mismanagement for Venezuela's economic crunch, warning that 2 million more people are expected to flee by the end of the year if the crisis continues.

- AP

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