WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump on Tuesday denied any involvement by the U.S. government in what Venezuelan officials have called a failed armed incursion into the South American country that led to the capture of two American “mercenaries.”
Trump made the comment to reporters at the White House after socialist Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said on Monday that authorities there had detained a pair of U.S. citizens working with a U.S. military veteran who has claimed responsibility for the foiled operation.
“We’ll find out. We just heard about it,” Trump said when asked about the incident and the Americans’ arrests. “But it has nothing to do with our government.”
In a state television address, Maduro said authorities arrested 13 “terrorists” on Monday involved in what he described as a plot coordinated with Washington to enter the country via the Caribbean coast and oust him. Eight people were killed during the incursion attempt on Sunday, Venezuelan authorities said.
While echoing Trump’s denial, the State Department accused the Maduro government of a “highly questionable representation of the details,” saying it did not accept the account at face value and was seeking more information. It did not specify, however, what it believed had been distorted.
Maduro on Monday night showed what he said were the U.S. passports and other identification belonging to Airan Berry, 41, and Luke Denman, 34. He said they were in custody and had been working with Jordan Goudreau, an American military veteran who leads a Florida-based security company called Silvercorp USA.
The two detained Americans, former special operations forces members who had served with Goudreau, were believed to be in the custody of Venezuelan military intelligence, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Venezuelan Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez said on Tuesday the alleged plot was hindered by rivalries among the participants and logistical problems, including a shortage of fuel for their boats.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told a Pentagon briefing: “The United States government had nothing to do with what’s happened in Venezuela in the last few days.”
Although the incident has reverberated through the Venezuelan news media and social media, it has done little to change the situation either for Maduro - who oversees a collapsing economy - or for the opposition, which has been unable to remove him despite heavy U.S. sanctions and broad international support.
Washington has waged a campaign of economic and diplomatic measures against Venezuela in an effort to oust Maduro, accusing him of having rigged elections in 2018.
But while Trump has repeatedly said all options are on the table, his administration has shown no apparent interest in military action. Maduro’s government says the United States wants to control the OPEC member nation’s massive oil reserves.
Since early 2019, the United States and dozens of other countries have recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as the legitimate interim president.
But Maduro remains in power, backed by the military as well as Russia, Cuba and China, which some U.S. officials say privately is a source of frustration for Trump.
Guaido - often derided by Maduro as a U.S. puppet - has cast doubt on the government’s version of Sunday’s events.
“They’re trying to create a state of apparent confusion, an effort to hide what’s happening in Venezuela,” Guaido said in a virtual session of congress on Tuesday, citing gasoline shortages, a deadly prison riot and a violent gang battle in Caracas. The Venezuelan government is also struggling to cope with the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.
In Washington, a source familiar with U.S. intelligence assessments described the incursion as a “private enterprise” and said it was not believed to have been carried out with Guaido’s knowledge or approval.
Accusing Maduro’s government of using the incident “to justify an increased level of repression,” the State Department spokesman said: “We will also be looking closely into the role of the Maduro regime in this melodrama and especially of the very large Cuban intelligence apparatus in Venezuela.”
There was no immediate sign, however, that the U.S. and Venezuelan governments were communicating about the matter. Since the two countries broke off relations last year, the U.S. Embassy has ceased to operate in Caracas, making it harder for the governments to deal with such issues.
Monday’s arrests come after Maduro’s government said on Sunday it had thwarted a “mercenary incursion.”
Goudreau released a video identifying himself as an organizer of the operation, alongside dissident Venezuelan military officer Javier Nieto.
Silvercorp’s website describes Goudreau as a “highly decorated Special Forces Iraq and Afghanistan veteran.”
Reporting by Steve Holland, Matt Spetalnick, Mark Hosenball, Tim Ahmann, Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali in Washington and Sarah Kinosian in Caracas; Writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney