- Associated Press - Monday, March 2, 2020

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - A powerful ally of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on Monday denied any type of armed threats against U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó as shown in a widely circulated photograph.

The image taken by a member of Guaidó’s press team depicts an armed man in street clothes and a motorcycle helmet pointing a pistol at a group of people led by Guaidó during a Saturday street rally.

Opposition leaders marching with Guaidó said that socialist hardliners loyal to Maduro also opened fire to intimidate opposition supporters at the event in the central city of Barquisimeto, injuring a 16-year-old boy who was shot in the leg.

However, Maduro ally and socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello in a news conference Monday called the photo a “lie” distributed by the opposition in an attempt to trick Guaidó followers into thinking his life is in danger.

“He’re an alleged gunman, an armed man,” Cabello said, holding up a copy of the photo. “Everyone is calm… and Guaidó keeps on talking.”



Cabello said that the boy was injured a long distance from Guaidó, dismissing it as an unrelated incident.

According to opposition leaders interviewed by The Associated Press on Saturday, about 200 armed civilians and government security forces ambushed marchers led by Guaidó. They said several others were roughed up as the Maduro loyalists harassed participants.

The AP was not present at the rally so was unable to verify the account made by either side. The photo of the gunman aiming at Guaido was provided to the AP by the opposition leader’s team.

The confusing incident is believed to be the first time pro-government vigilantes known as colectivos have aimed a weapon at Guaidó, who the U.S. and more than 50 other countries recognize as Venezuela’s rightful leader following Maduro’s re-election in 2018 in a race the opposition says was marred by irregularities.

It is was the first public trip Guaidó has taken outside the capital of Caracas since returning from an international tour to rally support, including a White House meeting with President Donald Trump, who invited Guaidó as a special guest to his annual State of the Union address.

The incident was widely condemned in the international community by the European Union, the Organization of American States and the Lima Group, which integrates a dozen countries in the region to find a way out of the Venezuelan crisis.

Guaidó has called for a demonstration on March 10, when the opposition will attempt to retake control of their legislative building in the center of Caracas. Armed civilians and security forces have forcefully blocked opposition lawmakers from entering the building since January.

Also Monday, Venezuelan authorities said that they arrested two managers of the state-run oil firm PDVSA, accused of providing internal information to the U.S.

It follows a recent announcement by Maduro to restructure PDVSA after stiff U.S. sanctions against a Russian state-controlled brokerage that has helped the Venezuelan government skirt an American oil embargo and enabled Maduro to keep his grip on power.

The two men arrested are Alfredo Marcial Chirinos Azuaje, special operations manager, and Aryenis Torrealba, general manager of crude operations. They’re accused of providing the U.S. with “strategic, sensitive and confidential information.”

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