Venezuelan security forces raided the homes of Leopoldo López and his parents yesterday as they sought to arrest the hard-line opposition leader who president Nicolás Maduro blames for three deaths at recent anti- government protests.
Mr López, who has not been seen since a Wednesday night press conference, was not at either of the residences in Caracas’s eastern district when groups of national guardsmen and military intelligence officials arrived late at night. Aides said neighbours banged on pots and pans to protest what they consider an arbitrary detention order.
“Maduro, you’re a coward,” Mr López said in a message posted on Twitter after security forces left the premises yesterday. “You’re not going to force me or my family to bow down.”
The manhunt followed another night of protests during which security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets to break up a group of some 500 students who have vowed to remain on the streets until all anti-government demonstrators are released. Authorities said 23 people were being treated for injuries, none of them life-threatening.
Earlier, Mr Maduro said that authorities were searching for 42-year-old Mr López, whom he accuses of leading a US-backed, “fascist” plot to oust him from power just two months after his party’s candidates won mayoral elections by a landslide.
Mr López “ordered all these violent kids, who he trained, to destroy the prosecutor’s office and half of Caracas and then goes into hiding,” Mr Maduro told thousands of supporters at a rally on Saturday. “Turn yourself in coward”.
Mr López has vowed to press ahead with protests to force Mr Maduro to give up power, blaming the socialist president for rampant crime, 50 per cent inflation and worsening shortages of basic goods.
Still, he has called on Venezuelans to avoid violence and has said that he had nothing to do with the clashes with police and pro-government militias that took place on Wednesday after the rally he helped organise against Mr Maduro’s ten-month-old government had concluded peacefully.
US officials have denied any plotting to oust Mr Maduro, and secretary of state John Kerry said: “We are particularly alarmed by reports that the Venezuelan government has arrested or detained scores of anti-government protesters and issued an arrest warrant for opposition leader Leopoldo López. These actions have a chilling effect on citizens’ rights to express their grievances peacefully.”
Aides to Lopez denied he was avoiding arrest and said he remains in the country.
Mr López, a Harvard- educated former mayor, is the most prominent of a group of hard-liners who have challenged two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles for leadership of the anti-Maduro movement.
In an apparent bid to dampen anti-government demonstrations, which have been held at intervals since Wednesday, Mr Maduro said he had ordered the suspension of subway and bus service in the Chacao area of the capital where the protests are centred.