May 16, 2019 / 4:34 PM / 4 months ago

U.S. federal agents arrest protesters occupying Venezuelan Embassy

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. law enforcement officers raided the Venezuelan Embassy on Thursday to oust a small group protesting U.S. policy toward the oil-rich country, paving the way for the diplomatic compound to be handed to the U.S. envoy of opposition leader Juan Guaido.

Supporters of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido celebrate outside the Venezuelan embassy to the United States after U.S. law enforcement officers arrested and removed the remaining activists sympathetic to embattled President Nicolas Maduro who had been part of a multi-week occupation of the embassy in Washington, U.S., May 16, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Since mid-April, members of three activist groups have been occupying the embassy, a red brick building in the upscale Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, where they say they are “invited guests” of the Venezuelan government.

The activists oppose U.S. intervention in Venezuela to oust President Nicolas Maduro in favor of Guaido, self-proclaimed interim president of the OPEC-member nation.

“I am here standing before you announcing that we have recovered this building thanks to the Venezuelan diaspora,” Carlos Vecchio, Guaido’s representative in Washington, told a group of supporters outside the building late on Thursday.

Vecchio also thanked President Donald Trump’s administration. The building was undergoing safety checks and would be open for business soon, he said.

Authorities arrested the last four protesters on Thursday after utilities for the building were cut off and they ignored an eviction order, the groups say.

A spokesman for Pepco, Washington’s energy utility, said the company does not discuss service to individual properties.

The U.S. Secret Service confirmed officers had helped agents from the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service execute arrest warrants against people inside the embassy.

A U.S. State Department spokeswoman said the government of Guaido, whom the United States recognizes as the leader of Venezuela, asked for U.S. assistance in removing the protesters from the embassy.

“The Venezuelan government, led by Interim President Juan Guaido ... has asked the trespassers to depart the premises,” the spokeswoman said.

Neither agency identified what charges the protesters faced.

Tensions have escalated between the United States and Venezuela as Washington has ratcheted up pressure against the government of Maduro, which it says is illegitimate.

The United States has imposed sanctions against Venezuelan leaders, ordered the withdrawal of diplomatic personnel from Venezuela in March and, on Wednesday, suspended passenger and cargo flights between the United States and Venezuela.

Maduro, who has branded Guaido a U.S. puppet seeking to oust him in a coup, broke off relations with Washington after it recognized Guaido and recalled diplomatic and consular staff.

Representatives of Guaido took control of three of the country’s diplomatic properties in the United States in March.

At its peak, about 50 people from three groups had occupied the Venezuelan Embassy, according to Medea Benjamin, a co-founder of Code Pink, one of the groups involved.

Reporting by Makini Brice; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Doina Chiacu, Susan Thomas and Cynthia Osterman

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