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Venezuela on alert after rogue attack

Riot police advance on opposition demonstrators blocking an avenue during an anti-government protest at Los Ruices sector in Caracas, on June 28, 2017. EDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images
Riot police advance on opposition demonstrators blocking an avenue during an anti-government protest at Los Ruices sector in Caracas, on June 28, 2017. EDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images

TODAY VENEZUELA, Caracas  — Venezuela on Wednesday launched a nationwide manhunt for Oscar Perez, a day after the police official and sometime film actor apparently hijacked a government helicopter, hurled grenades at the Supreme Court headquarters and fired shots at the Interior Ministry building.

In a statement, Interior Minister Nestor Reverol accused Perez of acting in concert with U.S. intelligence officials and of trying to accelerate the violence that has gripped Venezuela for nearly three months and left 76 people dead and more than 1,500 injured.

“A direct relation is proven between the author of this terrorist act and intelligence agencies of the United States,” said Reverol, who did not name any U.S. officials but promised that proof of the link would be made public in coming days. The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the accusation.

Reverol, who formerly headed Venezuela’s anti-drug agency, was accused in August by U.S. prosecutors in New York of receiving bribes from drug traffickers in exchange for enforcement tip-offs.

He said that Perez conspired with an unspecified number of other individuals and that the government has asked Interpol to detain Perez if he leaves Venezuela.

Perez, 36, is an official with the top police investigative agency known by its initials CICPC. He was described by Reverol as a “deserter” who formerly flew for former Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres, a Maduro opponent. He had a role in a 2015 Spanish-language movie “Death Suspended,” a police drama based on a kidnapping case.

While he remains at large, the helicopter he stole was found Wednesday in the northern state of Vargas, Vice President Tareck El Aissami announced.

The hijacking made international headlines and fueled speculation of a conspiracy within government agencies to topple President Nicolas Maduro, who called it a coup attempt. Nobody was hurt in the attack, and there was no indication Wednesday of any widespread rebellion in the armed forces or government agencies.

In Caracas, the capital, and cities across the country, anti-Maduro protesters continued to march Wednesday as they have since late March to protest food scarcities, hyperinflation and abuse of power.

The latest focus of their ire is Maduro’s plan for a July 30 vote to dissolve the opposition-controlled National Assembly and replace it with a convention charged with writing a new constitution.

During the helicopter’s flight over downtown Caracas, Perez flew a banner with the words “350 Liberty,” a reference to a constitutional clause giving citizens the right to ignore the commands of an abusive government.

In videos posted on his social media account, Perez is shown standing with other masked men and reading statements in which he describes himself as a “nationalist” and “patriot.”

Barely noticed in the confusion Tuesday was the invasion of the National Assembly building by dozens of armed pro-Maduro militia members known as “colectivos.” The militias, which have been described as shock troops that Maduro uses to intimidate anti-government protesters, are suspected of harassing two opposition members.

Also on Wednesday, the Maduro-controlled Supreme Court issued a decree stripping certain powers from the attorney general, Luisa Ortega Diaz. Ortega, whose office acts as a public advocate in cases of alleged government abuse, is one of the few officials to criticize Maduro, describing the proposed constitutional assembly as illegal.

At a news conference, she challenged the court’s action.

“What we have here is state terrorism,” she said. “Repression is rising.”

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