Venezuela government says opposition linked to military revolt; party denies charge

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s government said on Tuesday that a group of military officers who stole weapons as part of a failed revolt on Monday had delivered the arms to opposition party Popular Will, which the party dismissed as “lies” and an attempt to divert blame.

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Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez provided no evidence for the government’s allegation.

Some two dozen officers attacked a National Guard outpost in the Caracas neighborhood of Cotiza, a km (0.6 mile) from the presidential Miraflores palace, leading to opposition demonstrations in nearby parts of Caracas.

Popular Will called the allegation the “same lies and manipulation” and said the party’s struggle to re-establish constitutional order was peaceful. In a statement on Twitter, Popular Will accused Rodriguez of trying to mask discontent within the military by accusing the party of stealing the arms.

Government officials often describe Popular Will as a terrorist organization, which the party dismisses as an intimidation tactic.

“Some of those who stole the weapons yesterday confessed that they were handed over to civilians belonging to the terrorist cell Popular Will,” Rodriguez said in televised statements.

Rodriguez said the officers involved stole 51 rifles but that authorities had only recovered 40. The officers were arrested after the incident.

Rodriguez alleged Popular Will activists planned to use the weapons to create violence during nationwide marches planned by both the government and the opposition for Wednesday. Popular Will said it neither had nor wanted the weapons.

Congress has called on citizens to take to the streets to protest against President Nicolas Maduro on Wednesday, the 61st anniversary of the collapse of a military dictatorship.

The marches are held every year, but the opposition is unusually energized following Maduro’s Jan. 10 inauguration to a disputed second term that governments around the world have decried as illegitimate.

Popular Will lawmaker and congress chief Juan Guaido, who was briefly detained by intelligence agents this month, has received international support amid growing criticism of Maduro. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence released a video on Tuesday in which he expressed support for Venezuela’s opposition and Guaido.

Reporting by Corina Pons; Writing by Brian Ellsworth and Angus Berwick; Editing by Peter Cooney