US demands Venezuela release Guaido aide

Personal belongings are seen on the floor at the residence of Roberto Marrero, chief of staff to opposition leader Juan Guaido, after he was detained by Venezuelan intelligence agents, according to legislators, in Caracas, Venezuela, on Thursday. — Reuters

WASHINGTON — The United States demanded on Thursday that Venezuela immediately release opposition leader Juan Guaido’s top aide and vowed to hold accountable those involved in the arrest.

Venezuelan intelligence officers arrested Roberto Marrero, Guaido’s chief of staff, in a pre-down raid on his Caracas home, according to Guaido and a recorded voice message by Marrero published on social media.

“The United States condemns raids by Maduro’s security services and detention of Roberto Marrero, Chief of Staff to Interim President @jguaido,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on his Twitter account.

“We call for his immediate release. We will hold accountable those involved,” he said.

The United States has repeatedly warned Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro there would be consequences if Guaido or his aides were arrested.

Guaido, who heads the National Assembly, is recognized by the United States and more than 50 other countries as Venezuela’s rightful interim president.

US President Donald Trump has said, as recently as Tuesday, that “all options” remain on the table in his drive to bring down Maduro, implying military action if he deemed it necessary.

So far, however, the power struggle in Venezuela has become bogged down in an impasse, with Maduro railing daily about the US “imperialists” trying to dislodge him and Guaido touring the country to rally supporters and pledge he’ll be taking over “very soon.”

Maduro’s forces have reinforced obstacles blocking a border bridge linking Venezuela and Colombia to prevent Guaido’s supporters trucking in US aid stockpiled on the other side. Extra shipping containers and concrete blocks have been moved into place on the bridge.

As well as seizing Marrero early Thursday, SEBIN officers raided the next-door home of an opposition lawmaker, Sergio Vergara, the opposition-ruled congress — the National Assembly — tweeted.

Vergara was not arrested. He told reporters that he saw Marrero bundled off into the street.

He said around 15 SEBIN officers “ransacked” his own home for around two hours, while asking where to find Marrero, a lawyer who works in the National Assembly.

“They started to bash on the door of Roberto Marrero’s place, which is a few meters (yards) from my door, until they were able to get inside,” he said.

“The dictatorship is abducting citizens,” he added.

The United States has cautioned Maduro to not lay a finger on Guaido or National Assembly deputies or risk unspecified repercussions.

Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton in January tweeted: “Any violence and intimidation against US diplomatic personnel, Venezuela’s democratic leader, Juan Guaido, or the National Assembly itself would represent a grave assault on the rule of law and will be met with a significant response.”

The United States has since withdrawn all its diplomats from Venezuela.

In just over a month, on April 28, increasingly harsh US sanctions on Venezuela will jump up a critical level with a ban on all oil sales to the United States, Venezuela’s main crude buyer.

The step is expected to worsen already dire economic conditions ravaging Venezuela, a once-wealthy South American nation that has become impoverished under Maduro. — AFP