Controversy over death of rebel ex-policeman killed in Venezuela's raids

By Maria Isabel Sanchez   January 18, 2018 | 01:52 am PT
Controversy over death of rebel ex-policeman killed in Venezuela's raids
This file photo taken on July 13, 2017 shows Venezuelan police officer Oscar Perez participating in an anti-government protest in Caracas on July 13, 2017. Several people, including two police officers, were killed in an operation to capture a helicopter pilot who bombed Venezuela's Supreme Court during anti-government protests last year, the interior ministry said Monday. A ministry statement said members of a "terrorist cell" were killed in a fierce gunbattle, and five were captured, but did not say whether the pilot, Oscar Perez, was among the dead or detained. Photo by AFP/Inaki Zugasti
A bloodied Perez posted videos on Instagram saying he and his men were pinned down by snipers and wanted to surrender, but in vain. 

Venezuela's government announced Tuesday that rogue pilot Oscar Perez was among seven "terrorists" killed during a bloody police assault to arrest him the day before.

Police swooped on Perez and his armed group holed up outside Caracas on Monday, setting off a fierce gunbattle in which two police officers were also killed.

It was initially unclear whether the 36-year-old -- Venezuela's most wanted man -- had been killed or captured.

His family had pleaded for news of his condition from the government, until Tuesday's announcement drew a line under the latest bloody chapter of efforts to unseat President Nicolas Maduro.

Perez had been wanted since he used a stolen helicopter to bomb Venezuela's Supreme Court at the height of anti-government protests last June.

Maduro had accused him of attempting a "coup" and being in the pay of the CIA.

Interior Minister Nestor Reverol told reporters in Caracas that four men and two women arrested in the so-called Operation Gideon "are being prosecuted at this time."

Eight police officers had been wounded in the battle, he said.

"The acts committed by this criminal gang qualify as terrorism, constituting clear and flagrant attacks against democratic institutions," said Reverol, who was flanked by senior military and police officers.

'Extrajudicial execution?' 

A bloodied Perez posted videos on Instagram during Monday's clashes, saying he and his men were pinned down by snipers and wanted to surrender.

The government accused his men of opening fire on police during negotiations to surrender.

It said that those who resisted had been killed.

Ex-attorney general Luisa Ortega Diaz, who broke with Maduro and fled to Colombia after being fired last year, described the incident as an "extrajudicial execution."

In June, Perez and unidentified accomplices flew over Caracas in a police helicopter and dropped four grenades on the Supreme Court before opening fire on the interior ministry. There were no casualties.

Perez had been on the run since.

The 36-year-old former elite police officer and actor has regularly taunted the government during his time in hiding, saying he was fighting against Maduro's "tyranny" and the "narco-dictatorship."

Two weeks after the attack on the Supreme Court, Perez turned up at a Caracas ceremony to commemorate those who had died in the wave of anti-government protests.

In all, 125 people were killed between April and July as authorities used force to put down protests to remove Maduro.

Eventually, the protests fizzled out and the socialist president prevailed, despite a staggering crisis caused by falling oil prices, spiraling inflation and corruption.

Action man 

Perez urged Venezuelans "not to lose heart. Fight, take to the streets, it is time for us to be free."

In a country enduring deadly political violence, Perezquickly cast himself as a real-life action man in interviews and photos on his Instagram account, which show him doing various James Bond-style shooting stunts honed during a 16-year career in the elite police force.

"I am a helicopter pilot, combat diver and free-fall parachutist," he was quoted as saying by the newspaper Panorama.

That was in an interview ahead of the release of "Suspended Death," a film in which he appeared.

"I am also a father, friend and actor... I am a man who goes out into the street without knowing whether he will come back home again, because death is part of evolution."

In December, Perez claimed responsibility for an attack on a military base in the country's north that yielded a haul of 25 Kalashnikovs and other weapons for his group, which was increasingly becoming a thorn in the government's side.

Foreign Minister Samuel Moncada called Perez a "psychopath." Vice President Tareck El-Aissami called him a "deserter, fanatic and traitor to the homeland."

Even among the mainstream opposition parties with which he made common cause, he was seen as a dangerous provocateur.

The melodrama that seemed to characterize his life continued to the bitter end, with a crouched and bloodied Perez shouting into an Instagram video during Monday's assault: "They are firing at us with grenade launchers.

"We said we are going to surrender but they do not want to let us surrender. They want to kill us."

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