CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan authorities have detained two U.S. citizens working with a U.S. military veteran who has claimed responsibility for a failed armed incursion into the oil producing country, President Nicolas Maduro said on Monday.
Venezuelan soldiers in balaclavas move a suspect from a helicopter after what Venezuelan authorities described was a “mercenary incursion”, at an unknown location in this still frame obtained from Venezuelan government TV video, May 4, 2020. VENEZUELAN GOVERNMENT TV/Handout via REUTERS TV
In a state television address, Maduro said authorities arrested 13 “terrorists” on Monday allegedly involved in a plot he said was coordinated with Washington to enter the South American country via the Caribbean coast and oust him.
Eight people were killed during the foiled incursion attempt on Sunday, Venezuelan authorities said.
Maduro showed what he said were the U.S. passports and other identification cards belonging to Airan Berry and Luke Denman, who he said were in custody and had been working with Jordan Goudreau, an American military veteran who leads a Florida-based security company called Silvercorp USA.
“They were playing Rambo. They were playing hero,” Maduro said, adding that Venezuelan authorities had caught wind of the plot before its execution.
Goudreau, who identified himself as an organizer of the invasion on Sunday, told Reuters on Monday that Berry and Denman were also involved.
“They’re working with me. Those are my guys,” he said by telephone.
The State Department did not provide any immediate comment on the alleged arrests. U.S. officials have strongly denied any U.S. government involvement in the incursions.
A person familiar with the matter said the two U.S. citizens were captured on Monday in a second-day roundup of accomplices and were believed to be in the custody of Venezuelan military intelligence.
The source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the details came from contacts with Venezuelan security forces.
Opposition leader Juan Guaido cast doubt on the government’s version of Sunday’s events, insisting Maduro is seeking to distract from other problems in recent days including a deadly prison riot and a violent gang battle in Caracas.
Guaido’s communications team on Monday denied media reports that Guaido had hired Silvercorp to remove Maduro by force, adding the opposition leader and his allies “have no relationship with or responsibility for the actions of the company Silvercorp.”
In a statement on Monday evening, Guaido’s team said: “We demand the human rights … of the people captured in recent hours be respected.”
Washington has imposed tough economic sanctions against Venezuela in an effort to oust Maduro, whom it accuses of having rigged elections in 2018. Maduro’s government says the United States wants to control Venezuela’s massive oil reserves.
‘ATTACK AGAINST OUR FATHERLAND’
Monday’s arrests come after Maduro’s government on Sunday said mercenaries had attempted to enter the South American country on speed boats from neighboring Colombia, saying eight people had been killed and two detained.
Later on Sunday, Goudreau released a video identifying himself as an organizer of the invasion, alongside dissident Venezuelan military officer Javier Nieto.
Goudreau said in the video that fighters on the ground continued to carry out operations in different parts of the country.
He identified one of the fighters as “Commander Sequea,” which appeared to be a reference to Antonio Sequea, who was identified on Monday by state television as one of the people arrested.
Silvercorp’s website describes Goudreau as a “highly decorated Special Forces Iraq and Afghanistan veteran.”
A Venezuelan state television anchor on Monday showed photos of men laid out on the ground with their hands behind their backs, adding that the group was traveling near the town of Chuao area in central Aragua state.
The group was “caught by popular force, by fishermen,” the anchor said.
Cabello posted a video of men in black with balaclavas pulling a shirtless man from a helicopter, whom they identified as part of the group captured.
“Without a doubt, the imperialists directed this attack against our fatherland,” Cabello said on Twitter, in reference to the U.S. government.
A U.S. official, who asked not to be named, said the U.S. government had no involvement with the incident. Another source familiar with U.S. intelligence analysis and reporting also said that U.S. agencies have nothing to do with any military incursions in Venezuela.
Reporting by Vivian Sequera and Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Mark Hosenball in Washington, Writing by Luc Cohen, Editing by Leslie Adler and Christopher Cushing