CARACAS, Venezuela – The man named days ago to head the air force in the wake of a failed coup died in a helicopter crash along with three other generals, the military said Saturday, adding to the turmoil in Venezuela's armed forces.
Gen. Luis Alfonso Acevedo and the generals died when their helicopter crashed in forests 10 miles north of the capital, likely due to bad weather, the military said.
Also killed were a captain, three lieutenants and two sergeants, Gen. Pablo Perez Perez told Globovision television. Two other helicopters carrying the commanders in chief of the Army and the National Guard were also forced to land, but none were injured in those craft.
The officers had attended a ceremony installing a new Navy chief, Vice Admiral Fernando Camejo Arenas.
President Hugo Chavez reshuffled the high command of the military after a short-lived coup – backed by some in the military – during which he was ousted April 12 only to be reinstated a few days later
Sharp divisions within the military over the coup bode ill for Venezuela's goal of reconciliation. Five high-ranking officers brought to court Friday for their role in the coup insisted the action had humanitarian aims, to prevent the slaughter of civilians by soldiers acting on Chavez's orders.
Chavez's defenders, in response, depict the coup as a carefully planned plot backed by anti-Chavez interests abroad and headed by opposition leaders willing to kill their own followers to get rid of the president.
In the bloodshed at an April 11 anti-Chavez march hours before the coup, at least 16 people were killed. More than 100 people died during subsequent riots and looting.
A military judge on Friday ordered the five officers to indefinite house arrest pending formal charges of rebellion.
"We still consider this to be an illegitimate government," said Rear Admiral Carlos Molina Tamayo as he was whisked away by military police. "The armed forces are very beaten down and divided." Tamayo had denounced Chavez in February.
Asked if Chavez was reorganizing the military to his liking, Molina Tamayo replied: "Maybe. But he can't remake the country to his liking."
Gen. Efrain Vasquez Velasco, the army's former second-in-command, greeted reporters with a crisp salute outside the military courtroom.
"The general acted out of respect for human rights, respect for the law," Vasquez's lawyer, Rene Buroz, said after a hearing on rebellion and mutiny charges that carry a 30-year maximum sentence.
Defense lawyer Hidalgo Valero said that as many as 3,000 officers supported or participated in the uprising against Chavez. Hundreds of lower-ranking officers have testified before military intelligence officers.
Army Gen. Nestor Gonzalez has defended the coup as "a humanitarian act meant to avoid having the army attack the people and produce a massacre." Gonzalez said generals balked at Chavez's order to activate "Plan Avila," calling out troops to defend the palace by any means necessary during the march by hundreds of thousands of civilians.
Chavez was confronted by his high command after the bloodbath. Asked why the generals didn't grant Chavez's request to flee to Cuba, Gen. Hector Gonzalez said the army was afraid of taking the blame for the dead.
"If the president had been allowed to leave, he would have left all of these deaths and this tremendous conflict for us to clear up, that was implicit," Gonzalez said. "What would society have thought?"
Chavez's chief ideologue – Guillermo Garcia Ponce, whose official title is director of the Revolutionary Political Command – insists that dissident generals, local media and anti-Chavez groups in the United States plotted his overthrow. He claims they even hired sharpshooters to fire on the anti-Chavez demonstrators.
"The most reactionary sectors in the United States were also implicated in the conspiracy," Garcia Ponce told Globovision television on Friday. Asked to explain the April 11 shooting of opposition protesters, purportedly by Chavez's own activists, Garcia Ponce blamed provocateurs.
"The people planning it placed sharpshooters at strategic points to open fire on pro-Chavez and anti-Chavez marches," Garcia Ponce said. "It was a provocation, part of the coup, to create this massacre to justify the coup."
Garcia Ponce did admit that members of the Bolivarian Circles, pro-Chavez neighborhood committees, were sent to newspaper and television offices after the coup to pressure journalists "to tell the truth." With gunfire crackling around their offices, several newspapers failed to publish editions that day.
Comar, a private survey firm, said 56 percent of Caracas residents polled said they'll never know what happened; 33 percent said they will; and 11 percent were uncertain. The poll of 500 people had a 5 percent margin of error and was published by El Universal newspaper.