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Tug-of-war in Venezuela over rebels' bodies

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Caracas (AFP)

Dozens of Venezuelan soldiers ringed a Caracas morgue Wednesday where the body of dissident former police officer Oscar Perez and six others were taken after being gunned down in a bloody police operation.

Perez, Venezuela's most wanted man, had gone on social media while the operation was underway Tuesday to say he and his group wanted to surrender but were under unrelenting sniper fire.

That has raised questions about the government's account that the seven were killed after opening fire on police who had come to arrest them.

"There was an extrajudicial execution and we want to prove it," said Winston Flores, an opposition lawmaker who heads a congressional committee formed to investigate the deaths.

Flores, a physician by training, told reporters outside the Bello Monte morgue that authorities refuse to release the bodies or provide autopsy reports.

"The response we received was that they are not going to hand over the bodies because they are (being held) at the order of a military court," said Flores.

The morgue itself was cordoned off by five rings of armed soldiers carrying anti-riot shields.

The blonde and telegenic Perez, 36, was known to Venezuelans as a movie actor and member of an elite police unit.

But he gained national notoriety in June at the height of anti-government protests against President Nicolas Maduro.

As street protests raged, Perez and accomplices flew a stolen police helicopter over Caracas, dropping grenades on the Supreme Court and opening fire on the Interior Ministry in what Maduro denounced as a coup.

Since then Perez has taunted the government from hiding, popping up on social media and at opposition rallies.

In his final video post during the assault, a bloodied Perez called on Venezuelans "not to lose heart. Fight, take to the streets, it is time we are free."

On Tuesday, his wife Dana Vivas demanded on Twitter that the government allow his family to identify his body, and insisted it not be cremated.

Flores said his committee had been informed that the bodies were being kept in refrigerated cases.

In a statement, the non-governmental rights organization Foro Penal stressed that the state has a duty "to guarantee the life including of those who have been identified as authors or participants of criminal acts."

It noted that extrajudicial executions are "expressly forbidden in Venezuela."

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