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Supreme Court bars chief prosecutor from leaving Venezuela

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CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela's Supreme Court barred the nation's chief prosecutor from leaving the country and ordered her bank accounts frozen hours after she delivered a scathing critique accusing President Nicolas Maduro of “state terrorism.”

The government-stacked court announced Wednesday evening that it was proceeding with a complaint filed by a socialist party lawmaker accusing Luisa Ortega Diaz of acting as a de facto opposition leader in violation of her constitutional duties.

The development came as authorities pressed a nationwide manhunt for a police investigator accused of stealing a police helicopter and sending grenades and gunfire at the Supreme Court and Interior Ministry on Tuesday night. Officials found the helicopter abandoned on the coast in Vargas state near Caracas but there was no sign of the fugitive, Oscar Perez.

No one was injured in the attack and there was no sign of any significant damage at the buildings. But the episode added another layer of intrigue to a 3-month-old political crisis that has left at least 75 people dead and hundreds more jailed after clashes between security forces and protesters demanding Maduro's removal. Many Venezuelans are angry over triple-digit inflation, food shortages and high crime.

Speculation swirled after the dramatic air assault: Did Perez act alone? Is unrest rising in the police and military? Or was it an elaborate ruse orchestrated by the government to distract attention from Venezuela's problems or justify a tougher crackdown on the opposition?

Julio Borges, president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, expressed doubts about Maduro's version of events but cautioned that he and the rest of the opposition were still analyzing what happened.

“There are people who say it was a government-staged hoax, others who say it was real,” Borges said in a radio interview. “Whatever it was, it all points in the same direction: That the situation in Venezuela is unsustainable.”

On his Instagram account, Perez notes his job as a police investigator and tactical helicopter pilot and says his passion is Venezuela. In 2015, he starred in a movie called “Suspended Death,” and several photos show him wearing fatigues while holding assault rifles, skydiving and standing in action poses with a German shepherd by his side.

Actor Marcos Moreno, who starred alongside Perez in the film, told The Associated Press that like many young officers in Venezuela, Perez was unhappy with the growing crisis. He described the police investigator as an honest man and expressed doubt about the suggestions that Perez was in cahoots with a government distraction plot.

“He just wanted to raise appreciation for police in society,” Moreno said.

Sometime Tuesday, Perez posted on his Instagram account a video in which he read a manifesto calling for rebellion. He claimed to speak on behalf of a coalition of renegade members of the security forces.

Witnesses said the helicopter had hanging from its side a large banner referring to article 350 of the country's constitution, which empowers Venezuelans to disobey any regime that violates human rights.

The government said Perez and others in the helicopter fired 15 shots at the Interior Ministry. It then flew a short distance to the court, which was in session, and dropped grenades, two of them against national guardsmen protecting the building.

Photos of the pilot standing in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington and a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter were shown on state television to bolster the government's case that he was taking instructions from the CIA and the U.S. Embassy.

As the drama was unfolding outside the court, inside magistrates were issuing a number of rulings further blocking the opposition.

One broadened the powers of staunchly pro-government ombudsman Tarek William Saab, allowing him to carry out criminal investigations that are the exclusive prerogative of Ortega, a former supporter of late President Hugo Chavez who has recently become a strong Maduro critic.

A defiant Ortega said she won't recognize three new rulings that she portrayed as a brazen attempt to eliminate her position as Venezuela's top law enforcement official.

“These rulings are giving the power to investigate human rights abuses to people who possibly are violating those rights,” she said Wednesday in her strongest remarks since breaking with Maduro over a Supreme Court ruling in March that sought to strip the legislature of its last powers.

Hours after her comments, the high court announced it was proceeding with a complaint filed by lawmaker Pedro Carreno and putting restrictions on Ortega Diaz's movements in order to proceed with a hearing scheduled for next week.

Carreno accuses Ortega Diaz of breaking with her constitutional responsibility to refrain from political activism and instead has become “a political activist for the right.”

On Wednesday, she said her office would continue its functions as described in the constitution.

“I don't recognize these decisions,” Ortega Diaz said to loud applause from aides. “I promise you I will defend Venezuela's constitution and democracy even if it costs me my life.”



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