CARACAS (Reuters) - A former U.S. soldier captured in Venezuela said on Wednesday that he had been contracted by a Florida security firm to seize control of Caracas’ airport and bring in a plane to fly President Nicolas Maduro to the United States.
Venezuelan authorities on Monday arrested the man, Luke Denman, along with fellow U.S. citizen Airan Berry and 11 others, in what Maduro has called a failed plot coordinated with Washington to oust him.
During questioning broadcast on state television, Denman said the firm, Silvercorp USA, had signed a contract with Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido to seek Maduro’s removal. A Guaido advisor told CNN on Wednesday that he had signed an exploratory agreement, but it had never been finalized and the opposition did not support the attempted incursion.
U.S. President Donald Trump has denied involvement. A senior Trump administration official said Maduro’s accusations of a U.S. role “are not credible” and the administration remained focused on “achieving a peaceful, democratic transition in Venezuela.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday that the U.S. government would use “every tool” to secure the Americans’ return, if they were being held in Venezuela.
In the video, Denman, 34, answered questions from a person off-camera speaking in English
Denman, who looked calm and wore a gray t-shirt, said his mission was to secure the airport and establish outer security. He did not give details on how his group planned to get Maduro on a plane.
It was unclear when or where the video was made, and where Denman and Berry are being held.
In March, the U.S. Department of Justice charged Maduro and a dozen other current and former Venezuelan officials with “narco-terrorism” and the Trump administration offered a reward of $15 million for information leading to his arrest.
“I was helping Venezuelans take back control of their country,” Denman, a former special operations forces member, said in the video.
Denman said he and Berry were contracted by Jordan Goudreau, a U.S. military veteran who leads Silvercorp, to train 50 to 60 Venezuelans in Colombia in January for the operation. Goudreau supplied the group with equipment, Denman said.
Goudreau confirmed his role as organizer of the operation in media interviews on Sunday and told Reuters on Monday that Denman and Berry were “my guys.” He could not be immediately reached for comment on Wednesday.
Venezuelan authorities said they arrested the group by the isolated coastal town of Chuao, about 60 kilometers (40 miles) west of Caracas’ airport, after locals raised suspicions. Authorities published photos of what they said was the group’s boat, loaded with ammunition, weapons and communication equipment.
Eight people involved in the same operation were killed on Sunday in La Guaira state, near Caracas, Maduro’s government said.
During a televised virtual press conference on Wednesday, Maduro originally said he would show videos of the two Americans, but did not end up showing a video of Berry. He said Venezuela would seek Goudreau’s extradition.
“Donald Trump is the direct chief of this invasion,” Maduro added.
Guaido’s team, in a statement earlier this week, said they had “no relationship with any company in the security and defense branch,” including Silvercorp.
But on Wednesday, Juan Rendon, a Guaido advisor and member of his strategic committee, told CNN that he had signed an “exploratory agreement” with Silvercorp to seek the capture of members of Maduro’s government “to deliver them to justice.”
Rendon said the preliminary agreement was never executed or completed and Goudreau sent the soldiers on a “botched suicide” mission without Guaido’s support.
After Denman’s televised statement, a U.S. State Department spokesman said that “due to privacy considerations” it would have no further comment about the two Americans alleged to be in Venezuelan custody.
Additional reporting by Vivian Sequera in Caracas and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Marguerita Choy, Rosalba O'Brien and Kim Coghill