December 20, 2017 / 2:06 AM / a year ago

Venezuela's Maduro says 'terrorists' stole weapons from military unit

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan leftist President Nicolas Maduro said on Tuesday that “terrorists” had broken into a National Guard unit over the weekend and stolen weapons, the latest sign of volatility in the oil-rich country convulsed by a profound economic crisis.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gestures while he talks to the media during a news conference at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

Oscar Perez, a rogue Venezuelan police pilot wanted for lobbing grenades and shooting at government buildings in June, claimed responsibility for the attack, which he called “Operation Genesis.”

A video posted on Perez’s YouTube account shows armed, masked men taking control of military barracks under cover of night. They smash photos of Maduro and his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, handcuff around a dozen soldiers and berate them for supporting “dictatorship” in Venezuela.

“You yourselves are dying of hunger. Why have you not done anything, given you have weapons? Why do you keep protecting these drug-trafficking dictators?” the assailants shout at gagged soldiers crouching on the floor of what appears to be a bathroom.

“Soon we’ll win the war ... so that Venezuela can be free,” says Perez, under the cover of a black balaclava.

His Twitter account later posted a purported summary by authorities of the attack. The summary says some 49 armed men stole around 26 Kalashnikov AK-103’s and over 3,000 munitions for the rifles, as well as pistols, in Miranda state near Caracas during the early hours of Monday.

Reuters was not able to independently confirm details of the attack. The Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

An action film star who portrays himself as a James Bond cum-Rambo figure on social media, Perez has added surreal twists to Venezuela’s long-running political drama.

He rose to fame in June after hijacking a police helicopter flying over Caracas’ center. He fired shots at and lobbed grenades on the Interior Ministry and the Supreme Court to fight what he said was a tyrannical government. He went into hiding after the attack, only to pop up two weeks later at an opposition vigil for anti-government protesters killed during demonstrations that rocked the country earlier this year.

Perez’s latest offensive highlights instability in Venezuela, an OPEC member state heaving under malnutrition, disease and the world’s steepest inflation rate. The opposition has long appealed to the military, historically a powerbroker in Venezuela, for help.

Maduro on Tuesday denounced the attackers, whom he did not name, as “terrorists” sent by his ideological enemy the United States.

“Wherever they appear, I’ve told the armed forces: Fire at the terrorist groups!” he said during a speech on state television, as he blamed opposition groups in Miami for orchestrating the raid.

“Do these people think they can attack a unit of the armed forces to steal some guns and threaten democracy and that that’s going to be tolerated? Zero tolerance!” Maduro said.

The military has played a key role in government since Chavez - himself a former military officer - took office in 1999 promising to bring greater equality to Venezuela, home to the world’s largest oil reserves.

The top brass continues to publicly profess loyalty to Maduro’s government. Critics say juicy government contracts, corruption and contraband mean that many military officials want Maduro to stay in office and fear persecution should the opposition take power.

Discontent is higher among lower-tier officials, who are often sent to control rowdy protests and are paid the equivalent of just a handful of U.S. dollars a month.

Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Leslie Adler

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