Venezuela forces take down fugitive group in deadly shootout

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan special forces on Monday captured five members of a band led by a rebellious police officer who has been on the run since stealing a helicopter and launching grenades at government buildings in the capital last year, officials said.

It wasn’t clear if the renegade officer, Oscar Perez, himself had been killed or captured in a deadly gunbattle after more than six months on the lam.

Two officers were killed and five seriously wounded during a shootout with Perez and his comrades, the Ministry of Interior Relations said in a statement.

“The members of this terrorist cell who conducted armed resistance were taken down and five criminals captured and detained,” the statement said.

Earlier Monday, Perez, 36, posted video clips showing blood dripping across his face as gunshots rang in the background. Perez said officers were firing at the group and wanted to kill him instead of permitting his surrender.

“We’re going to turn ourselves in!” Perez shouted.

He holed up with at least two other men in what appeared to be a home in mountains outside Caracas. He urged Venezuelans in the video clips to fight against the socialist government.

“I want to ask Venezuela not to lose heart — fight, take to the streets,” he said. “It is time for us to be free, and only you have the power now.”

Perez leaped into the spotlight in June when he staged a dramatic helicopter attack in Caracas, lobbing grenades at the Supreme Court and Interior Ministry buildings in broad daylight. No one was injured in the incidents and Perez managed to flee before authorities swarmed in.

In numerous videos posted on Instagram, Perez has claimed that he is fighting for Venezuela’s freedom from a tyrannical government that is starving its people. He now has tens of thousands of followers online and has piqued the curiosity of Venezuelans who either hail him as hero, condemn him as a criminal or question if he might be a ruse to support President Nicolas Maduro’s assertion that the nation is under attack by opposition conspirators.

Days after his brazen helicopter attack, Perez rode into Caracas on a motorcycle and appeared at an anti-government protest. Near-daily demonstrations against Maduro’s rule over a four-month span last year left at least 120 people dead.

“It’s the zero hour,” Perez said in a posting last July as several masked youths looked on from behind. “The true way to pay respects to those who’ve died is for this dictatorship to fall.”

Adding to the intrigue is Perez’s unusual past, which combined work as a highly trained officer, an action-movie actor, pilot and dog trainer.

In December, Perez posted videos showing him and a small armed band taking over a military outpost and smashing a portrait of Maduro with his foot. Perez and the assailants berated several detained guardsmen for doing nothing to help their fellow citizens suffering from hunger.

 

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