The Venezuelan Supreme Court was hit by an attack from a police helicopter today, marking the latest incident in an escalation of the turmoil surrounding the regime of President Nicolas Maduro.
It is alleged that the helicopter was stolen and piloted by Oscar Perez, an officer in the country's investigative police force. Perez flew the helicopter around the court building and the Interior Ministry in Caracas, whilst the rest of the crew threw grenades and opened fire, officials said.
Maduro has condemned the attack, branding those involved as 'terrorists'. He has issued a statement and placed the military on alert.
"I have activated the entire armed forces to defend the peace," he said. "Sooner or later, we are going to capture that helicopter and those who carried out this terror attack."
Shortly before the attack began, a video surfaced online, featuring a man who identified himself as Perez, dressed in camouflage and a bulletproof vest and flanked by four armed men.
"On this day, we are carrying out a deployment by air and land with the sole purpose to return the democratic power to the people and to ensure the laws to establish constitutional order," he said in the footage.
A banner could be seen hanging from the helicopter, that said, 'Article 350 libertad' - referring to an article in the Venezuelan constitution that allows citizens to oppose the government if democratic principles fail to be upheld.
Se reporta explosión en el TSJ, un helicoptero del CICPC lanzó un explosivo a la sede del TSJ. pic.twitter.com/3OFjJthSGs
- Reynaldo Riobueno (@reynaldor297) June 27, 2017
Earlier on today, Maduro warned of a potential attack.
"If Venezuela was launched into chaos and violence and the Bolivarian Revolution was destroyed, we would go to combat," he said.
"We would never give up. And what couldn't be done with votes, we would do it with weapons. We would liberate our fatherland with arms."
It remains unclear how the helicopter managed to circle the building for such a drawn out length of time without being shot down - witnesses say that the attack went on for around two hours.
Francisco Panizza, professor of Latin American and comparative politics at the London School of Economics, speculated that the upcoming National Assembly vote could have laid the foundations for the attack.
"(They) are very heavily involved in the Maduro government, of course they have been key in terms of suppression of the demonstrations (against the government) ... the ultimate power now lies with the security forces, rather than the government itself," he said.
"If the security forces don't back up Maduro, he will have no future."
Venezuela is currently in the throes of socio-political chaos and has been for several months.
Anti-government protesters accuse Maduro of eroding democracy in the country and are calling for him to step down.
Thousands of people have been taking to the streets in protest and Maduro has responded by deploying armed forces to maintain order, resulting in the deaths of at least 75 civilians.
Just last week David José Vallenilla, 22, became one of the latest victims of the unrest when he was shot dead at point-blank range.
Vallenilla was shot three times in the chest from a few feet away and died later on in hospital.
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