- Image 1 of 3
- Image 2 of 3
- Image 3 of 3
CARACAS, Venezuela – Police broke into Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma's office and carted off the longtime critic of Venezuela's socialist government, adding to tensions on the anniversary of the outbreak of protests that paralyzed the nation a year ago.
President Nicolas Maduro took to television and radio to say that Ledezma, one of the most vocal opposition leaders, would be punished for trying to sow unrest in Venezuela, which is struggling with severe economic problems.
Emotions were already running high before dozens of men in flak jackets and camouflage uniforms smashed down the door of Ledezma's office and forcibly carried him out of the building.
As news of the incursion spread across the capital, people spontaneously banged pots from their windows in protest while drivers tapped rhythms on their car horns in rush hour traffic. As night fell, a few dozen people vented their anger in front of the headquarters of the intelligence service police, where Ledezma was thought to be.
"He'll be held accountable for all his crimes," Maduro said in a speech that TV and radio stations across the country were required to carry.
Last week, Maduro named Ledezma among government critics and Western powers he accused of plotting a coup to bring down the government, one of more than a dozen such denunciations Maduro has made since taking power in 2013. Ledezma mocked the accusation in multiple interviews, saying the real destabilizing force in Venezuela was the government's corruption.
Tensions have been running high in Venezuela this week, with the one-year anniversary of the start of weeks of anti-government street protests that choked the country with tear gas and smoke from flaming barricades and resulted in more than 40 deaths. National police arrested several other mayors and former mayors during that unrest, including Leopoldo Lopez, who is considered by human rights groups as Latin America's most high-profile political prisoner.
Allies of Ledezma called for more protests Friday to demand his immediate release, a call echoed by Human Rights Watch.
The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, called the Venezuelan government's accusations of coup-plotting "baseless and false" and said they are meant to draw attention away from mounting economic problems such as widespread shortages and inflation that reached 68 percent last year.
"The Venezuelan government needs to deal with the grave situation it faces," the State Department said in a statement.
Ledezma, Lopez and other hard-line leaders of the opposition had marked the anniversary of last year's protests with a call for a national pact establishing a transitional government to rescue Venezuela from a coming "humanitarian emergency."
Maduro on Thursday flashed a copy of the Feb. 11 statement and called it a green light and political cover for his opponents to launch a coup.
The mayor has been a thorn in the side of the ruling party since he won the mayor's post in 2008, beating out a member of the socialist party led by the late President Hugo Chavez.
The government subsequently transferred nearly all of Ledezma's powers, including control of police and schools, to a newly created government entity. Ledezma responded with a hunger strike that drew international attention and cemented his status as symbol for what the opposition calls the government's efforts to marginalize elected officials who do not fall in line.
His arrest was captured on surveillance video, clips of which rocketed around social media. A group of men in black and gray camouflage, wearing bulletproof vests, can be seen forcefully hustling the 59 year-old politician from his building.
A member of Ledezma's security team, who was not authorized to give his name, said the armed officers, some of them wearing masks, used their weapons to break the door to the mayor's office and haul him away.
Opposition lawmaker Ismael Garcia wrote on Twitter that he saw Ledezma carried away. "They took him out of his office like he was a dog," he wrote
Hannah Dreier on Twitter: https://twitter.com/hannahdreier