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Caracas Mayor's Arrest Over 'Coup Plot' Denounced

by VOA News February 20, 2015

Critics of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro are decrying the unexpected arrest Thursday of Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma and calling for a protest demonstration.

Venezuelan police arrested the opposition leader after the government accused him of helping plan what it says was a U.S.-backed coup against the socialist government.

Ledezma is expected to be brought before a judge Friday, the Associated Press reported, a day after he was seized. Heavily armed security forces, outfitted in masks and camouflaged uniforms, broke down the doors of his office in the banking district and firing warning shots into the air.

'I just saw how they took Ledezma out of his office as if he were a dog,' opposition lawmaker Ismael Garcia tweeted, Reuters news agency reported. 'They broke down the doors without an arrest warrant.'

Maduro has accused the 59-year-old mayor of being behind a coup, which he says also involved military aviation officers.

'On the orders of state prosecutors, [Ledezma] was captured and will be processed by the Venezuelan justice system for crimes committed against the peace of the country,' Maduro said.

The president said the plan was financed and directed by Washington. A State Department spokesman on Thursday called the accusations 'baseless and false.'

Maduro and his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, have spoken routinely of U.S.-backed coup attempts, but have provided no evidence to support these claims.

Protest planned

In response to the mayor's arrest, the Student Movement of Caracas posted invitations on social media inviting Venezuelans to participate in a peaceful protest.

The demonstration, which was planned for 10:30 a.m. local time at Brion Chacaito plaza in the Venezuelan capital, aimed to express solidarity with Ledezma and other political prisoners.

Reuters reported Ledezma recently had drawn the government's ire for signing a document calling for 'a national transition,' construed as a coup attempt.

Last week, the mayor was accused by Socialist Party official Diosdada Cabello of plotting last year to kill another opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, to foment political unrest, Reuters reported.

Ledezma's arrest comes almost exactly a year after opposition protests spread throughout Venezuela, leading to clashes between demonstrators and police that killed dozens of people. Ledezma had participated in those protests.

Student Movement activists are asking the government to respect the prisoners' human rights and to release all those who are still 'unfairly detained.' They are also demanding justice for the 43 victims of last year's protests against the government.

Ledezma's wife claims uncertainty

The veteran opposition leader's wife, Mitzy Capriles de Ledezma, said she does not know where Ledezma is or if he has been charged with a crime.

'He was abruptly taken away from his office,' she said, adding that police 'prevented all means of communicating' with him.

'They confiscated the car and motorcycle keys. There is no way of knowing how Antonio is doing,' she said.

Opposition leaders denounced the arrest as an attack on democracy. Small protests in support of Ledezma were seen outside the country's intelligence service on Thursday. No clashes were reported.

Ledezma was elected twice as mayor of Caracas, most recently in 2013. His powers have steadily been restricted by the federal government.

Maduro, who was elected in 2013 following Chavez's death that March, has faced several challenges, not only from the protests, but also declining popularity ratings and a shrinking economy.

VOA's Spanish branch contributed to this report. The Associated Press and Reuters also provided information.

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