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World

Venezuela's Supreme Court Attacked By Rogue Police Helicopter

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Last night in Caracas, a police helicopter circled over the Venezuelan Supreme Court building. Someone in the helicopter apparently threw grenades down at the court. This comes as protests against Nicolas Maduro's government have steadily grown. The circumstances surrounding this attack are murky, and Reuters correspondent Brian Ellsworth joins us via Skype from Caracas to help sort it out. Welcome.

BRIAN ELLSWORTH: Hi. Thanks.

SHAPIRO: Begin by telling us who claimed responsibility for this attack.

ELLSWORTH: This was a police officer named Oscar Perez. He appeared in a video that he himself filmed before saying he wanted to remove the government of Nicolas Maduro and that he wanted to achieve freedom for the country. There are then a number of social media videos that circulate showing a helicopter flying into downtown Caracas at about sunset. And people there described hearing a number of detonations or explosions. And afterwards, we had an announcement from the government that this was an attempt to overthrow the government by someone affiliated with the opposition.

SHAPIRO: So that's one narrative - that this was an attempt to overthrow the government. But there's another narrative that has come out that says this was some kind of a false flag operation. Explain that claim.

ELLSWORTH: Yes. The opposition has immediately jumped on this claim as being suspect for a number of reasons. They note that this operation in which there were 15 shots fired from a helicopter, four grenades launched and three of them apparently exploded - people say that it's pretty unlikely that that would happen without anyone being wounded - no reports of injuries or deaths. It doesn't suggest a particularly serious operation.

The background of the police officer in particular has also brought a lot of attention because he is a movie actor who starred in a Venezuelan film about the Investigative Police, something equivalent or similar to the U.S. FBI, in which he plays an officer who rescues a businessman from a kidnapping.

SHAPIRO: He was an actor but also a special forces member, right?

ELLSWORTH: Yes. He has a very theatrical Instagram feed in which he's shown in combat fatigues or in a very sort of photogenic character who very clearly enjoys media attention. And all of this is exceptionally unusual for the Investigative Police, who tend to be very tight-lipped.

SHAPIRO: So as a journalist working in Caracas, do you have any way of knowing which story is real - that this was actually an assault on the government by rebels or that it was some kind of an actor pretending to stage an assault on the government to give the president an excuse to crack down on his opponents?

ELLSWORTH: We try not to make specific judgments on these things if we don't have all of the elements, and we very clearly don't. I think it's important to play up some of the skepticism regarding this because Venezuela's government, I would say not unlike many governments in the world - it does have a tendency or has in the past exaggerated national security threats for political benefit. I think people would agree that this has in the past happened in the United States as well.

SHAPIRO: Are you seeing any signs that police or the military or other people with power are turning against the government?

ELLSWORTH: I hear this approximately every day. This floods social media feeds. This is filled on Twitter and Facebook. Somebody always has a cousin who knows someone in the barracks who says that the big one is around the corner.

SHAPIRO: The big one meaning the coup.

ELLSWORTH: The coup, the military intervention, the unusual movement of troops. And I can't say that I have enough of a clear read into what's going on in the military to know that this is actually happening. I think there's very good reason to believe that people are dissatisfied in the military, particularly the lower ranks, the National Guard troops that are on the streets in the protests in the middle of clouds of tear gas or having rocks thrown at them or constantly breaking up protests. I don't think they're happy with what's going on. I think they, like a lot of Venezuelans, are not getting enough to eat. So they're probably not satisfied with their overall condition.

SHAPIRO: That's Brian Ellsworth, a senior correspondent for Reuters in Caracas, Venezuela. Thanks for joining us.

ELLSWORTH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.