Venezuela detains top aide to Guaido in move U.S. calls ‘big mistake’

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CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido said on Thursday intelligence agents had detained his chief of staff during a pre-dawn raid, a move by President Nicolas Maduro that the Trump administration said would “not go unanswered.”

Personal belongings are seen on the floor at the residence of Roberto Marrero, chief of staff to opposition leader Juan Guaido, after he was detained by Venezuelan intelligence agents, according to legislators, in Caracas, Venezuela March 21, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Guaido invoked the constitution in January to assume the interim presidency after declaring Maduro’s 2018 re-election a fraud. He has been recognized by the United States and dozens of other Western nations as the country’s legitimate leader.

Maduro, who has overseen a dramatic collapse of the OPEC nation’s economy, has called Guaido a puppet of the United States and said he should “face justice,” but has not explicitly ordered his arrest.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, called for the immediate release of Roberto Marrero. “Maduro has made another big mistake,” Bolton said on Twitter.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said earlier on Thursday that “we will hold accountable those involved.”

Top U.S. officials have repeatedly warned Maduro not to touch Guaido and his inner circle, but it is unclear what more they can do.

They have threatened ever harsher sanctions intended to further isolate Maduro and cut off his administration’s sources of revenue, but the humanitarian and political costs of further blanket measures could be high. Millions of Venezuelans are already suffering shortages of food and medicine.

Guaido said the raids by agents from the SEBIN intelligence service on the residences of Marrero and another opposition legislator, Sergio Vergara, showed Maduro’s “weakness” and that attempts to intimidate him would not derail the opposition campaign.

“As they cannot take the interim president prisoner, so they seek out people closest to him, threaten relatives, carry out kidnappings,” Guaido told a news conference.

Marrero recorded a voice message as SEBIN agents were trying to enter his home in Caracas’ upscale Las Mercedes neighborhood, which Guaido’s press team forwarded to reporters.

“I am in my house and the SEBIN is here. Unfortunately, they have come for me. Keep up the fight, don’t stop and look after (Guaido),” Marrero said.

Vergara, Marrero’s neighbor, said some 40 armed SEBIN agents forced their way into their homes and spent three hours inside. The SEBIN left with Marrero and Vergara’s driver, the legislator said in a video posted on his Twitter account.

Guaido said that Marrero had told Vergara that agents had planted two rifles and a grenade in his house.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“HELD TO ACCOUNT”

Since January, Venezuelan authorities have arrested over 1,000 people in connection with anti-government demonstrations, most of them arbitrarily, rights groups say.

United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said on Wednesday that Venezuelan security forces, backed by pro-government militias, have quashed peaceful protests with an excessive use of force, killings and torture.

On Thursday, the UN human rights office tweeted its concern over Marrero’s detention and urged the government to respect due process and reveal his whereabouts. The Lima Group regional bloc also denounced Marrero’s arrest and said Maduro was responsible for his safety.

Maduro has said his government is the victim of an “economic war” led by his political adversaries and blames U.S. financial and oil sector sanctions for the country’s situation.

Venezuela is reeling from annual inflation topping 2 million percent, which has fueled malnutrition and preventable disease and spurred an exodus of more than 3 million citizens since 2015.

While Trump has said all options remain open, there appears to be little support in Washington or regional Latin American capitals for any military intervention.

Guaido traveled around South America in February to drum up diplomatic support, defying a travel ban imposed by the pro-government Supreme Court.

Slideshow (9 Images)

He later entered the country via Venezuela’s principal airport without being detained by immigration officials.

Venezuela’s chief state prosecutor, Tarek Saab, last week asked the Supreme Court to open an investigation into Guaido for alleged involvement in the “sabotage” of the country’s electrical network, after the longest nationwide power blackout in decades.

The opposition, along with electrical experts, said the power outage was due to the government’s incompetence and years without maintenance.

Reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Vivian Sequera; Additional reporting by Corina Pons in Caracas, Susan Heavey in Washington, and Hugh Bronstein in Buenos Aires; Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Bernadette Baum and Rosalba O’Brien

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