The mayor of Venezuela's capital, Caracas, has been arrested by security forces amid allegations he was involved in a coup plot directed by the United States.
Long reviled by the leftist government and its supporters, Mayor Antonio Ledezma is one of the most vocal opponents of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), founded by the late Hugo Chávez and now led by President Nicolás Maduro. His arrest stirred outrage among his allies, who gathered in Plaza Venezuela on Thursday night in protest at allegations they branded politically motivated, and accused the government of dragging him the mayor out of his offices like "a dog."
On Thursday afternoon Ledezma tweeted that police were about to arrest him at his offices in the EXA tower in El Rosal, an upscale neigborhood of Caracas. "My office is being raided in this moment by various police from the regime," he wrote.
Soon after, news broke that he had been detained by security forces.
Footage subsequently emerged purporting to show the raid. Both plain clothed security officials and heavily armed, uniformed police are seen entering the offices and then leaving with Ledezma in custody.
Maduro made a nationally televised appearance to announce the arrest.
"He was arrested on order of the prosecutor and will be processed so that he responds for all of the crimes against the country's peace, security and constitution," said Maduro. "Whoever is behind the coup has to go to prison, whoever it may be."
Maduro claimed that security forces had acted to prevent a coup attempt that was being financed and directed "from Washington."
The Venezuelan government under both Maduro and Chávez — who was the target of a failed 47-hour coup in 2002 — has long accused opponents of conspiring with the United States and frequently blames its economic, infrastructural, and security problems on "enemies" attempting to destabilize the country. In less than two years in office, Maduro has alleged no less than seven plots to overthrow him.
Maria Corina Machado, an opposition member of the national assembly, is currently facing charges relating to an alleged conspiracy to assassinate Maduro, while Leopoldo Lopez, an opposition leader, has spent a year incarcerated in the military prison Ramo Verde awaiting trial for arson and conspiracy over his role in last year's anti-government protests in which 42 people died.
The opposition, human rights groups, and Venezuela's long-time foe, the United States, says the detentions are politically motivated.
On February 2, Maduro accused Vice President Joe Biden of discussing a coup with regional leaders.
"The northern imperial power has entered a dangerous phase of desperation," he said in a televised address, "going to talk to the continent's governments to announce the overthrow of my government and I accuse Vice President Joe Biden of this."
On February 12, an ex-air force general and several other people were arrested for allegedly planning a coup. The government said 11 soldiers, two opposition politicians and a businessman had been implicated in the plot.
On Thursday, the United States swiftly denied its involvement in any coup attempt, and noted that despite the ongoing war of words between Washington and Caracas, the pair maintained close trading relations. The United States is the largest buyer of oil from Venezuela, which sits on the biggest hydrocarbon reserves in the world and whose economy and revolutionary project rests entirely on the industry.
"The allegations made by the Venezuelan government that the United States is involved in coup plotting and destabilization are baseless and false," read a statement issued by the State Department. "We remain Venezuela's largest trading partner. Venezuela's economic and political problems are the result of the policies of the Venezuelan government."
Politicians from the ruling conservative party in neighboring Colombia called on their president, Juan Manuel Santos, to convene the Organization of American States (OAS) for an emergency meeting on the detention.
Figures in the opposition have also contradicted Maduro's account of Ledezma's arrest, calling it illegal.
"I just saw how they took Ledezma out of his office as if he were a dog," opposition politician Ismael Garcia wrote on Twitter. "They broke down the doors without an arrest warrant."
When interviewed on local television news, NTN24, Garcia also contended that those who arrested Ledezma were not police, but from the Venezuelan intelligence service, SEBIN.
Images taken at the scene claimed to show the point of entry, where a glass door was shattered.
The arrest came after several protests in Caracas and elsewhere in the country marked the anniversary of Lopez's arrest.