Venezuela’s president Nicolás Maduro has survived an apparent assassination attempt after several drone explosions disrupted a speech at a military event.
The drones, armed with explosives, were flown towards Maduro as he addressed soldiers in the capital Caracas on Saturday afternoon.
The drones did not reach him, though it is not clear if they were shot down or exploded prematurely. The president survived unharmed while seven people were injured in the attack, the country’s information minister said.
Jorge Rodríguez said “the investigation clearly reveals [the explosions] came from drone-like devices that carried explosives”.
Maduro suggested an initial investigation showed Colombia and the US state of Florida, where many Venezuelan exiles live, were linked to the explosions. Speaking from the presidential palace two hours after the attack, he announced that those behind the attempt on his life had been captured.
“I am alive and victorious,” the socialist president said in a bellicose televised address. “Everything points to the Venezuelan ultra-right in alliance with the Colombian ultra-right, and that the name of [Colombian president] Juan Manuel Santos is behind this attack.”
A spokesperson for Santos – who leaves office on Tuesday – quickly denied the allegations as baseless. “The president is focused on the baptism of his granddaughter and not on bringing down foreign governments,” the official said.
The two presidents have often sparred, with Santos regularly labelling his Venezuelan counterpart a dictator who is leading his country into economic and political turmoil.
No one has claimed responsibility for the alleged assassination attempt outright, though one group – Soldiers Franelas – suggested involvement in a tweet.
“We have shown [the government] is vulnerable,” the group, whose members are not known, said. “[The attack] wasn’t achieved today but it is just a matter of time [until it is].”
The panic was captured during a live broadcast of the parade and speech, with Maduro and other officials looking to the sky from the podium while talking about the economy. Loud bangs could be heard in the background. The audio then went out and the camera panned to scores of soldiers hurriedly scattering from formation, before the broadcast was abruptly cut.
Carlos Julio Rojas lives one block from the Avenida Bolivar, the central highway where the parade was taking place.
“I heard two explosions,” he said. “I felt the walls of my house tremble and saw the soldiers run to the other side [of the street].”
Rojas added that military presence around the city centre has been ramped up since the incident.
Another eyewitness, who asked not to be named, was filming the chaos on his phone from outside the event’s picket barrier.
“I started recording with my phone what was happening around me … people running around … and a member of the National Guard approached me, took my phone and deleted the video,” the middle-aged man said.
Members of the media covering the event are said to have been detained, with one Associated Press photographer released hours after the chaos ensued, according to Crónica Uno, a local website.
Firefighters at the scene are disputing the government’s claim that the incident was an attack on Maduro’s life, claiming that it was instead caused by a simple gas tank explosion in a nearby apartment, the Associated Press reported.
Some Venezuela experts on social media are raising similar suspicions. “The official ‘investigation’ of today’s alleged assassination attempt against president Maduro takes the usual course: begin with the conclusions and work backwards,” Phil Gunson, a consultant with the non-profit Crisis Group, tweeted. “In a country where 98% of crime goes unpunished, government sleuths resolve this kind of case in a matter of hours.”
Venezuela, which has the largest proven oil reserves on the planet, has been mired in economic and political turmoil for several years, triggered by low oil prices. The International Monetary Fund predicts inflation to reach 1m per cent by the end of the year, while shortages in basic goods and medicines are widespread.