By Andrew Cawthorne and Alexandra Ulmer
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan opposition leaders and protesters on Friday demanded the release of a veteran Caracas mayor arrested on accusations of plotting violence against President Nicolas Maduro’s government.
The socialist leader and successor to Hugo Chavez cast Antonio Ledezma’s detention on Thursday night as part of efforts to stop a U.S.-backed coup, but opponents scoffed at that as a smokescreen to distract from Venezuela’s economic crisis.
Intelligence agents seized the 59-year-old mayor at his office and were holding him at their Helicoide headquarters while a judge decides if he will be charged.
“He’s in good spirits and very optimistic of demonstrating he has no links with any wrongdoing,” his lawyer Omar Estacio said after a brief visit to Ledezma with his wife Mitzy.
Ledezma is the highest-profile Maduro opponent in custody after fellow opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, arrested a year ago for his role in street protests that brought four months of violence and led to the death of 43 Venezuelans.
Dubbed “The Vampire” by Maduro supporters, the mayor allied himself with opposition radicals last year in supporting the street campaign, dubbed the “La Salida” or “The Exit.”
Maduro called the 2014 violence a coup attempt against his socialist government, and officials said last week Ledezma was among various politicians supporting a new plot with dissident military officers to topple the president via air strikes.
“Every fascist gets found out,” Maduro said, announcing the detention to applause from supporters.
The main evidence shown by officials was a public document signed by Ledezma and two other opposition leaders urging a transition, which officials call a roadmap for a coup but opponents term a political strategy paper.
The public prosecutor’s office said in a statement that Ledezma would be formally accused of “presumed involvement in conspiratorial acts to organize and carry out violent acts against the democratically constituted government.”
Opposition leaders, who gathered in a Caracas square on Friday with several hundred supporters, said Maduro was trying to make Venezuelans forget the economic recession, the highest inflation in the Americas and widespread scarcities.
Maduro, 52, a former union activist, bus driver and long-serving foreign minister, has seen his popularity plummet since he narrowly won election in 2013 to replace Chavez.
“They’re trying to distract us,” said pro-Ledezma demonstrator and lawyer Rosibel Torres, 53, waving a Venezuelan flag with “Freedom” written on it. “We’re entering a stage of brutal repression. We’re openly in dictatorship.”
Although opposition leaders lampoon Maduro’s coup allegations, there is a history of plotting against Venezuela’s socialist government including a brief 2002 coup against Chavez that was endorsed by the United States at the time.
Some hardline activists acknowledge the existence of an underground movement bent on toppling Maduro, and recently detained student radical Lorent Saleh surfaced in a government-broadcast video praising Ledezma as “an old fox ... the politician who has most supported the resistance.”
The public prosecutor’s statement mentioned Ledezma’s “links with the case of Lorent Saleh,” among other activists in jail accused of planning attacks.
Given accusations from Maduro and other officials that right-wing Colombian politicians were also involved in plotting, that country’s President Juan Manuel Santos insisted on Friday that was not the case.
“There is no plot whatsoever against any government from Colombia and, of course, if I find out anything concrete in that respect, I’d not only condemn it but act with all the force of the law,” Santos said in a speech.
Santos, who clashed in the past with Chavez before they patched up their differences, has irked Maduro by urging Lopez’s release and in Friday’s speech he called for guarantees of due process for Ledezma. “It interests, hurts and worries us, all what’s going on in Venezuela,” he said.
The mayor’s arrest touched off some isolated protests in Caracas and brought renewed violence in the volatile western city of San Cristobal, witnesses said.
Masked youths threw stones at the governor’s residence in San Cristobal, they said, and several dozen faced off with security forces on Friday.
Washington, which recently slapped sanctions on some Venezuela officials, called accusations it was trying to destabilize the South American OPEC nation “ludicrous.”
“The Treasury Department and the State Department are closely monitoring this situation and are considering tools that may be available that can better steer the Venezuelan government in the direction that they believe they should be headed,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea in Caracas, Helen Murphy in Bogota, David Lawder in Washington; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Dan Grebler and Tom Brown