U.S. hits four Venezuelan military officers with sanctions after captain's death

The name of Rafael Acosta Arevalo, a navy captain who died while in detention according to his family, is seen at his grave after a burial at a cemetery in Caracas, Venezuela July 10, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Friday stepped up its response following the death of a Venezuelan navy captain, sanctioning four top officials in Venezuela’s military counterintelligence agency, the U.S. Treasury Department said.

U.S. officials last week sanctioned the agency, known as the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM), freezing all its direct and indirectly-owned assets in the wake of Rafael Acosta’s death.

Friday’s action would freeze any of the four military officers’ assets under U.S.-control and block any U.S. persons or entities from any transactions or dealings with them.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government confirmed the death on June 29, eight days after Acosta had been arrested for alleged participation in a coup plot. Human rights organizations, political leaders and his family have accused the government of torturing Acosta to death.

The latest U.S. sanctions target Division General Rafael Ramón Blanco Marrero, Colonel Hannover Esteban Guerrero Mijares, Major Alexander Enrique Granko Arteaga and Colonel Rafael Antonio Franco Quintero, U.S. officials said.

“The United States will continue to hold individuals accountable who are involved in the former Maduro regime’s use of intimidation and repression to target and silence political opponents, innocent civilians, and members of the military,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has sought to leverage sanctions amid its push to oust Maduro, whose 2018 re-election has been deemed illegitimate by the United States and most Western nations. Maduro has retained the backing of the country’s military and other institutions.

The European Union has also said it is readying sanctions over the case, while the United Nations has called for an independent investigation into the captain’s death.

Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Tom Brown