Venezuelan lawmakers beaten up as govt supporters attack National Assembly

July 6, 2017 - 8:18 AM
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Venezuelan opposition lawmaker Luis Stefanelli (left) stands next to fellow opposition lawmaker Leonardo Regnault after a group of government supporters burst into Venezuela's opposition-controlled National Assembly in Caracas. (photo by Carlos Garcia Rawlins, Reuters)
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CARACAS — Pipe-wielding government supporters burst into Venezuela’s opposition-controlled congress on Wednesday, witnesses said, attacking and besieging lawmakers in the latest flare-up of violence during the political crisis gripping the country.

After the morning attack, a crowd of roughly 100 people, many dressed in red and shouting “Long live the Revolution!” trapped politicians, reporters and guests inside for hours, witnesses said. Some of those who had been caught inside were able to start leaving at dusk.

Some in the crowd outside the legislature brandished pistols, threatened to cut water and power supplies, and played an audio of former socialist president Hugo Chavez saying “Tremble, oligarchy!”

The crowd had gathered just after dawn outside the National Assembly building in downtown Caracas, chanting in favor of President Nicolas Maduro.

In the late morning, several dozen people suddenly ran past the gates with pipes, sticks and stones and went on the attack.

They injured at least five opposition lawmakers, some of whom stumbled bloodied and dazed around the assembly’s corridors, witnesses said. Some journalists also were robbed.

“There are bullets, there is blood, there are cars destroyed, including my personal one,” congress head Julio Borges told reporters from inside.

The worst-hurt lawmaker, Americo De Grazia, was hit on the head, fell unconscious, and was eventually taken by stretcher to an ambulance. His family later said he was out of critical condition and being stitched up.

Throughout the day, explosions were occasionally heard around the congress building as fireworks were tossed into the compound. Some 50 National Guard soldiers stood inside the gates to prevent people entering again.

“We’re kidnapped,” said opposition lawmaker William Davila from inside congress where politicians transmitted events throughout the day live from their telephones.

Downtown Caracas is a traditional stronghold neighborhood for the government and there has been a string of melees there since the opposition thrashed the ruling Socialist Party in December 2015 parliamentary elections.

In a speech during a military parade for Independence Day, Maduro condemned the “strange” violence in the assembly and asked for an investigation. But he also challenged the opposition to speak out about violence from within its ranks.

During three months of anti-government unrest in which at least 90 people have died, young demonstrators have frequently attacked security forces with stones, homemade mortars and Molotov cocktails, and burned property. They killed one man by dousing him in gasoline and setting him on fire.

“I want peace for Venezuela,” Maduro said. “I don’t accept violence from anyone.”

Numerous foreign nations repudiated Wednesday’s events.

“I condemn the grotesque attack on the Venezuelan assembly,” tweeted UK ambassador John Saville.

Venezuela’s opposition is demanding general elections to end socialist rule and solutions to the OPEC nation’s brutal economic crisis. The government says its foes are seeking a violent coup with U.S. support.

Helicopter attacker vows to fight on

Earlier, a Venezuelan police officer who staged a helicopter attack on government buildings in Caracas last week appeared in an internet video vowing to continue fighting.

Venezuelan police officer Oscar Perez posing during an event of the Body of Scientific, Penal and Criminal Investigation in Caracas, Venezuela in March 2015. (Reuters file)

“Once again we are in Caracas, ready and willing to continue our struggle for the liberation of our country,” police pilot Oscar Perez said in the video, wearing a military uniform and wool cap, with a Venezuelan flag and rifle behind him.

Perez had not been seen since he hijacked a helicopter last week and flew through Caracas pulling a “Freedom” banner. He opened fire and dropped grenades on the Interior Ministry and Supreme Court but nobody was injured.

Maduro, 54, the successor to Hugo Chavez, called that attack a terrorist assault to overthrow him and lambasted Western nations for not condemning it.

But many government critics doubt the official version, and some even suggested it may have been staged to divert attention from the country’s economic and political crises.

In the video, Perez said the attack was “perfectly achieved” with no collateral damage “because it was planned, because we are not murderers like you, Mr. Nicolas Maduro.”

Perez said he had staged an emergency landing on the Caribbean coast following the attack, and returned to the capital after hiking through mountains. The Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Perez, who has portrayed himself as a James Bond-cum-Rambo figure on social media, also is an actor who starred in a 2015 movie about the rescue of a kidnapped businessman.

Although he has claimed wider support within the security forces, Perez’s actions so far appear to be a rogue stunt organized by a small group of disaffected policemen.

Venezuela’s opposition has been staging demonstrations against Maduro for three months, saying he has created a dictatorship and destroyed the country’s economy.

They say Maduro is seeking to consolidate control through a Constituent Assembly, a superbody that will be elected at the end of July. The opposition has promised to boycott the vote, which it says is rigged in favor of the ruling Socialist Party.

“We are fully sure of what we are doing and if we must give up our lives, we will hand them over to the people,” Perez said in the video. “If this constituent assembly takes place, there will be no Venezuela.”

Before the attack on them, opposition lawmakers held a session denouncing the president as a “dictator” and approving a plebiscite that the opposition is organizing for July 16, asking Venezuelans what they think of Maduro’s plans.