Drone Bomb Targets Venezuelan President in Rally

Published August 6th, 2018 - 10:32 GMT
(AFP/ File)
(AFP/ File)

Footage has emerged which appears to show the moment a drone bomb detonated over a packed rally where Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was giving a speech.

The video, which has been widely shared by Venezuelan social media accounts, shows a single drone hovering above the military parade - before suddenly exploding into a fireball.

Venuzuelan officials have claimed dissidents used two M600 drones, each carrying 2lb of C4 explosive. One of the drones was to explode above the president while the other was to detonate directly in front of him, said interior minister Nestor Revero. 

But the military managed to knock one of the drones off-course electronically and the other crashed into an apartment building two streets away from where Mr Maduro was speaking to the hundreds of troops, Mr Reverol said.

It is believed the footage shows the moment the first drone detonated as it moved towards the President.

In the wake of the attack, Nicolas Maduro has begun rounding up political opponents, blaming them for what he called an assassination attempt on Saturday.

'We have six terrorists and assassins detained,' Mr Reverol said. 'In the next hours there could be more arrests.'  

One of those detained had a pending arrest warrant for a 2017 attack on a military base while a second had been detained in 2014 for participating in anti-government street protests.

Maduro had been addressing a military parade in Caracas on live TV, when he suddenly halted and looked to the sky after hearing an explosion. 

He and his wife Cilia Flores were swamped with aides carrying bulletproof shields and both escaped uninjured. Maduro claimed a 'flying device' had exploded and quickly blamed 'ultra-right' opponents.  

In spite of the footage, three fire officials at the scene disputed the government's version of events, claiming the attack was actually a gas tank explosion inside the Residencias Don Eduardo apartment building. Smoke could be seen coming out of one of the bulding's windows. 

But 55-year-old Maduro promised a crackdown of his rivals as he vowed to arrest those responsible, 'no matter who falls.'

'This was an attempt to kill me,' he said in an impassioned address.

He added: 'They have tried to assassinate me and everything points to the Venezuelan ultra-right in alliance with the Colombian far right and that the name of [Colombian President] Juan Manuel Santos is behind this attack.'

Information minister Jorge Rodriguez said 'several' drones loaded with explosive charges 'detonated near the presidential platform' - and that some of those behind the attack were detained.  

Video showed hundreds of soldiers who were assembled in neat formation on a wide road scatter in all directions amid the sound of screaming. Microphones could be heard being dropped at the state channel that was filming the event, which quickly froze.

In a statement three hours later, Maduro said 'everything points' to a right-wing plot that early investigation suggested was linked to Colombia, its president Juan Manuel Santos, and the US state of Florida - where many Venezuelan exiles live. He said several plotters had been arrested, without giving any further details.

Yet immediately Maduro's account of the incident was engulfed in controversy, with Colombia dismissing the claim its citizens were responsible as 'baseless.' 

Meanwhile, a little known group called the 'National Movement of Soldiers in Shirts' claimed responsibility for Saturday's attack.

Later, US National Security Advisor John Bolton rejected the idea the US government was behind the incident.

'I can say unequivocally there is no U.S. government involvement in this at all,' Bolton told 'Fox News Sunday' in an interview. 

Military expert Rocio San Miguel said she believed the incident was 'a security mistake'.

'A military drone was destroyed by the military because they lost control of it,' she added. 'It started descending and to avoid it hitting the presidential stage, they destroyed it.'

Bolton suggested that the Maduro government could be behind the explosion, citing widespread corruption and oppression in Venezuela.

'It could be a lot of things from a pretext set up by the Maduro regime itself to something else,' Bolton said, adding that there were no Americans injured in the blast.

'If the government of Venezuela has hard information that they want to present to us that would show a potential violation of U.S. criminal law, we will take a serious look at it,' he added.

Maduro often blames the United States, which has imposed sanctions against officials in his government, of 'conspiracy' and blamed U.S. politicians of fomenting plans to topple him to end nearly two decades of socialism in Venezuela.

Venezuela is suffering under the fifth year of a severe economic crisis that has sparked malnutrition and hyperinflation, which has caused tens of thousands of people to flee across the border into Colombia and Brazil. 

Maduro said the 'far right' domestic opposition had carried out the attack with help from Venezuelan exiles in the United States and Colombia, as well as Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos - a harsh critic of the socialist who has accused him of undermining democracy. 

He specifically named Florida - a city with a large Venezuelan expat population - as the source of the plotters. Some of the 'material authors' of the attack have been detained, he said, without giving any more details.

Colombia denied any involvement, while a senior Colombian official speaking on condition of anonymity said Maduro's accusation was 'baseless'. Tensions are high between both countries over Colombia's decision to welcome thousands of Venezuelan refugees.

Maduro's Communications Minister Jorge Rodríguez accused Venezuela's right-wing opposition of carrying out the attack to avenge their loss in May's presidential elections - which was widely seen as rigged.

However, Hasler Inglesias, a youth leader in the opposition Voluntad Popular Party, dismissed the claim.

'We didn't know what was happening,' he told the BBC. 'It's hard to believe that the opposition is going to make an attempt when they have never made an attempt in this way in 20 years.' 

Meanwhile, others even suggested the attack had been faked by the Maduro regime to stoke patriotism and legitimize a purge of its enemies.

Maduro and his allies have been quick to use the incident to paint an image of a loyal regime under attack from opposition politicians consorting with foreign powers, especially the US and Colombia. 

'That drone came after me,' he said. 'But there was a shield of love that always protects us. I'm sure I'll live for many more years.' 

Attorney General Tarek William Saab said the attempted assassination targeted not only Maduro, but rather the military's entire high command on stage with the president.

Prosecutors have already launched their investigation and obtained critical details from the suspects in custody, said Saab, adding that he would give more details. 

'We are in the midst of a wave of civil war in Venezuela,' Saab said.

David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America who has spent decades researching Venezuela, said the incident did not appear to be a staged attack by Maduro's government for political gain.

The 'amateurish' attack prompted embarrassing images of Maduro cut off mid-sentence with droves of soldiers running away in fear, making the president appear vulnerable, Smilde noted. Despite the optics, Smilde said he suspected that Maduro would nonetheless find a way to take advantage of it.

'He will use it to concentrate power,' Smilde said. 'Whoever did this, he'll use it to further restrict liberty and purge the government and armed forces.'  

Maduro has steadily moved to concentrate power as the nation reels from a crippling economic crisis.

In the midst of near-daily protests last year, a rogue police officer flew a stolen helicopter over the capital and launched grenades at several government buildings. Oscar Perez was later killed in a deadly gun battle after over six months on the lam.

The event had been just one more of many Maduro routinely holds with members of the military, a key faction of Venezuelan society whose loyalty he has clung to as the nation struggles with crippling hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine. 

This article has been adapted from its original source.

© Associated Newspapers Ltd.

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