CARACAS, Venezuela: Three Venezuelan air force generals accused of plotting a coup against the leftist government of President Nicolas Maduro were arrested on Tuesday (Wednesday in Manila), amid a widening crackdown on the opposition.
The unidentified generals were in contact with opposition politicians and “were trying to get the Air Force to rise up against the legitimately elected government,” Maduro told a meeting of South American foreign ministers.
“This group that was captured has direct links with sectors of the opposition and they were saying that this week was the decisive week,” he added.
The stunning disclosure—the first known significant threat from within Maduro’s government—comes amid a growing crackdown on the president’s opponents after more than six weeks of street protests that have left at least 34 dead.
In a further blow to the opposition, the mayor of the town of San Cristobal where the protests started was sentenced to a year in prison. Daniel Ceballos was convicted of failing to prevent violence and the blockading of streets.
He was the second mayor convicted and sentenced, and quickly. Enzo Scarano, mayor of San Diego in the north, was arrested, tried and sentenced to 10 months in prison. It all happened in a matter of hours last week.
An opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, has been detained since last month and is awaiting trial. He is accused of instigating violence against the government.
Betrayed by loyalists
The generals have been summoned before a court martial, Maduro said, adding that the plot was uncovered because other officers come forward to say they were being recruited.
It is the first time in 15 years of socialist government that generals have been arrested for alleged coup plotting, said military expert Fernando Falcon, a retired lieutenant colonel.
Massive protests in April 2002 resulted in Maduro’s predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, being briefly ousted—before he was restored to power for another decade.
Maduro and his government have been the target of near-daily protests fueled by public anger over soaring crime, hyperinflation and shortages of such basic goods as toilet paper.
On Monday, National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello announced that a prominent opposition deputy, Maria Corina Machado, had lost her seat and parliamentary immunity, and could be arrested at any time.
At a news conference in Lima, Peru, a defiant Machado said she would return to Caracas on Wednesday, adding she feared she would be arrested on her arrival.
She said she was returning “because I am a Venezuelan deputy and I will enter Venezuela as such to continue fighting in the streets without rest until we achieve democracy and freedom.”
Machado angered the government by going before the Organization of American States last week as a guest of Panama to discuss the crisis in Venezuela.