CARACAS Venezuela has arrested three air force generals accused of plotting a coup in league with opposition politicians during the country's rumbling civil unrest, the president said on Tuesday.
The move follows weeks of violence around anti-government protests that have killed 36 people in the nation's worst unrest for a decade.
In recent years, Venezuela's socialist government has routinely accused its rivals of scheming to seize power by force and assassinate its leaders, although it has rarely followed up with concrete proof of such headline-grabbing claims.
"Last night we captured three generals ... who tried to raise the air force against the legitimate, constitutional government," President Nicolas Maduro said on state TV during a meeting with South American foreign ministers in Caracas.
He did not name the officers, but said the plot was revealed by colleagues of the generals who were "alarmed" when they heard of the conspiracy. The three were now in custody of military courts.
"This group has direct links with sectors of the opposition. They were saying that this would be the decisive week ... in the belief that Venezuela did not know how to defend itself."
Hardline protesters are demanding that Maduro resign, while he says they are seeking a coup like the one 12 years ago that briefly ousted his predecessor and mentor, the late Hugo Chavez.
The numbers in the streets are far fewer than those who turned out back then, however, and there have been no signs that the current turmoil could force Maduro from office.
The demonstrations began in February with sporadic rallies by university students. They intensified after three people were shot dead after a February 12 opposition rally in the capital.
As well as political change, demonstrators are complaining about high inflation, shortages of basic foods, and one of the worst rates of violent crime in the world.
Opposition leaders say the government often invents theatrical conspiracy theories to distract the population from Venezuela's real problems. However, Chavez was forced out for 36 hours and the U.S. government has generally taken an antagonistic line to 15 years of socialist rule in Venezuela.
(Editing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Tom Brown)