VALENCIA, Venezuela (AP) — Military troops quickly put down an attack at an army base in Venezuela on Sunday, clashing with a group that said it was out to “re-establish the constitutional order” but was dismissed by officials as a band of civilians working with a deserted lieutenant and a former officer.
The incident happened during the early morning hours at the Paramacay base in the central city of Valencia. Residents who live nearby said they heard repeated rounds of gunfire starting around 4:30 a.m.
Dozens of locals gathered outside the base chanting, “Freedom!” and troops dispersed them with tear gas. A man was later shot dead at a protest less than a mile away, an opposition party official reported, adding to the scores of people who have been killed in months of unrest.
The clashes sparked just as a video showing more than a dozen men dressed in military fatigues, some carrying rifles, began circulating widely on social media. In the recording, a man who identified himself as Capt. Juan Caguaripano said the men were members of the military who oppose the government of embattled President Nicolas Maduro and called on other units to declare themselves in open rebellion.
“This is not a coup d’etat,” he said. “This is a civic and military action to re-establish the constitutional order.”
Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez characterized the attackers as a “paramilitary” expedition carried out by civilians dressed in uniforms. He did not name any of the participants but said they included a lieutenant who had abandoned his post and that a former officer dismissed three years ago after being charged with rebellion and betraying the homeland had recorded the video.
In 2014, Caguaripano released a 12-minute video denouncing Maduro during a previous wave of anti-government unrest. He later reportedly sought exile after a military tribunal ordered his arrest, appearing in an interview on CNN en Espanol to draw attention to discontent within the ranks.
He returned to Venezuela to lead Sunday’s uprising, said Giomar Flores, a mutinous naval officer who said he is a spokesman for the group from Bogota, Colombia.
Padrino Lopez alleged the men were recruited by “right-wing extremists” working with unspecified foreign governments. He said some of them managed to steal some weapons but the attack was quickly suppressed. At least seven people were detained and expected to be put before military tribunals.
“Today’s terrorist attack is no more than a propaganda show,” Padrino Lopez said.
For four months Venezuela has been in the throes of political upheaval that has left at least 120 people dead.
Haydee Franco, coordinating secretary of the Progressive Advance party, identified the slain protester in Valencia as Ramon Rivas. He was declared dead at a medical clinic.
Opposition leaders have called on the military, which historically has served as an arbiter of political disputes, to break with Maduro over what it considers violations of the constitution.
But the president is believed to still have the institution’s support. He and his predecessor, the late President Hugo Chavez, worked diligently to assure their allegiance.
Like Sunday’s uprising, most manifestations of dissent among the troops have been small and isolated thus far.
“It’s still very hard to know to what extent there are significant divisions within the military,” Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue said recently.
The attack capped an already tense weekend when a new constitutional assembly that will rule with nearly unlimited powers voted to remove chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz.
Ortega Diaz, a longtime government loyalist who has become one of Maduro’s most outspoken critics, reiterated her refusal to recognize the decision.
“I am still Venezuela’s chief prosecutor,” she said Sunday in a public appearance with leaders of the opposition.
The assembly swore in as her replacement Ombudsman Tarek William Saab, who was recently sanctioned by Washington for failing to protect protesters from abuses in his role as the nation’s top human rights official.
Meanwhile jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez was returned home to serve under house arrest his 13-year sentence for inciting violence at protests, days after being hauled back to prison in the middle of the night in a move that drew international condemnation.
Lopez’s wife, Lilian Tintori, said in a Saturday night message on Twitter that she and her husband remain committed to achieving “peace and freedom for Venezuela.”