CARACAS (Reuters) - Rogue Venezuelan helicopter pilot Oscar Perez was killed in a police operation on Monday along with six other anti-government militants, the interior minister said on Tuesday, spurring opposition complaints of human rights violations.
Perez, a photogenic former police officer who once starred in an action film, last year used a hijacked helicopter to attack government buildings and stole weapons from a military base in what he called a rebellion against President Nicolas Maduro.
He appeared with a bloody face in nearly a dozen Instagram videos early on Monday, saying he was surrounded by authorities shooting at him with grenade launchers even though he was promising to surrender.
Interior Minister Nestor Reverol said it was Perez who had attacked first, and that seven “terrorists” including him were killed outside Caracas, along with two police officers involved in the raid.
In a speech to the military late on Tuesday, leftist Maduro lauded the operation and accused right-wing opponents of being behind Perez.
“The Miami-based counterrevolution and the Colombian oligarchy must know that every group they arm and finance to bring terrorism here will be met with the same fate,” Maduro said in the hours-long event broadcast on state television.
Perez rose to fame in June after allegedly hijacking a police helicopter, flying over Caracas’ center and firing shots at and lobbing grenades on the Interior Ministry and the Supreme Court.
He claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was to fight what he said was a tyrannical government. He went into hiding afterward, but frequently appeared in videos that circulated on social media calling for resistance to Maduro.
The government described him as a “fanatic, extremist terrorist” and had been carrying out a manhunt for him since last June.
Critics initially questioned whether Perez’ attacks were staged in cahoots with the government to justify a further crackdown on the opposition.
But his death prompted an outcry over what critics called an extrajudicial killing and turned him into a martyr for hard-line foes of Maduro.
“We saw a group of civilians surrendering but, despite that, they were massacred,” said lawmaker Delsa Solorzano, adding that the opposition-run congress would investigate Perez’ “execution.”
Venezuela is suffering an unprecedented economic crisis that has left its once-prosperous citizens suffering from rising malnutrition and preventable diseases. Foods and medicine are increasingly out of people’s reach because they are not available at supermarkets or are too expensive.
Maduro says the country is the victim of an “economic war” led by political adversaries and fueled by economic sanctions levied by the government of U.S. President Donald Trump.
Additional reporting by Corina Pons and Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Susan Thomas and James Dalgleish