Venezuela opposition leader Guaido briefly detained

Carlos Garcia Rawlins, Reuters | Juan Guaido, head of the Venezuelan National Assembly and opposition lawmaker, at a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela, January 10, 2019.

Venezuelan intelligence agents briefly detained opposition leader and National Assembly leader Juan Guaido on Sunday, said his wife and several opposition legislators. Guaido was released later in the day.


Guaido on Friday said he was willing to assume the presidency after the opposition declared President Nicolas Maduro's second term to be illegitimate.

Hours after reports of his detention circulated on Twitter and regional news networks, a Venezuelan congressional official told Reuters the opposition leader had been released after a brief detention.

The confusing incident is bound to ramp up tensions between the opposition and government following Maduro's swearing in for a controversial second term this month.

A video circulating on social media purports to show the moment in which Juan Guaido is intercepted on his way to an anti-government "Citizens' Meeting" in the port city of La Guaira.

In the video shot on a cellphone by a motorist stuck in traffic, several men in ski masks and carrying assault weapons are seen struggling to shut the door on someone being pushed into an SUV before racing down a highway.

While it was not possible to identify Guaido in the 33-second video, his wife said on Twitter that he had been detained by a commando unit of the feared SEBIN intelligence police. As news of his detention spread, he was then released.

"I thank everyone for the quick response in the face of abuse against my husband by the dictatorship," Fabiana Rosales said in a message posted on Twitter. "The dictatorship will not be able to bend his fighting spirit."

Adding to the confusion, the government tried to shift the blame to Guaido's allies, with Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez saying that the "media show" had perhaps been orchestrated to provoke an international uproar.

Still, he acknowledged that police officers had partook in the arrest and said they would be disciplined.

"We want to inform the people of Venezuela that the officials who took that upon themselves are being dismissed," Rodriguez said on state TV.

At the rally Sunday after the incident, Guaido told the Associated Press that the SEBIN agents informed him they were carrying out orders from above when they arrested him.

"We are survivors," he told the crowd of a few hundred waving Venezuelan flags.

US ramps up criticism of Maduro

Reports of his Guaido's brief detention came a day after the US ramped up its criticism of Maduro with an explicit call for the formation of a new government in the country.

The State Department said in a statement released Saturday that it stood by Guaido, who had earlier declared he is prepared to step into the nation's presidency temporarily to replace Maduro.

The statement was the latest in a barrage of Trump administration attacks on Maduro, whose inauguration to a new term as president on Thursday has been widely denounced as illegitimate.

"The people of Venezuela deserve to live in freedom in a democratic society governed by the rule of law," State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said. "It is time to begin the orderly transition to a new government. We support the National Assembly's call for all Venezuelans to work together, peacefully, to restore constitutional government and build a better future."

"The United States government will continue to use the full weight of US economic and diplomatic power to press for the restoration of democracy in Venezuela," he said in the statement, which was released in Abu Dhabi where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is currently travelling as part of a nine-nation tour of the Middle East. Pompeo spoke to Guaido earlier in the week shortly after the 35-year-old was elected to lead the National Assembly.

Bolton repeats US position on May election

Guaido said he was willing to become interim leader when speaking to an energised crowd blocking a busy Caracas street a day after Maduro's inauguration. But he said he would need support from the public, the armed forces and the international community before trying to form a transitional government to hold new elections to replace Maduro.

The head of the Organisation of American States, Secretary-General Luis Almagro, responded quickly, sending out a tweet recognising Guaido as Venezuela's interim president.

US National Security Advisor John Bolton then praised Guaido, athough he didn't echo Almagro's step of calling him the interim president. Bolton reiterated the US position that the May election that gave Maduro a second term was "not free, fair or credible" and said "we support the courageous decision" of Guaido's declaration "that Maduro does not legitimately hold the country's presidency".

Guaido asked Venezuelans to mass in a nationwide demonstration on January 23, a historically important date for Venezuelans – the day when a mass uprising overthrew dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958.

The constitution assigns the presidency to the head of the National Assembly if Maduro is illegitimate.

But the overall military so far has remained firmly behind Maduro, despite some reports of small-scale attempts at revolt.

A once wealthy oil nation, Venezuela is gripped by a growing crisis of relentless inflation, food shortages and mass migration.

Seventeen Latin American countries, the US and Canada denounced Maduro's government as illegitimate in a measure adopted Thursday at the OAS in Washington.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AP)

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