Venezuela captures rogue officers after uprising at military outpost

Demonstrators stand close to the remains of a burning car used as barricade during a protest near to a National Guard outpost in Caracas, Venezuela January 21, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Mayela Armas and Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela has captured a group of military officers who stole weapons and kidnapped four officials on Monday, the government said, hours after a social media video showed a sergeant demanding the removal of President Nicolas Maduro.

An unspecified number of officers early on Monday attacked a National Guard outpost in the Caracas neighborhood of Cotiza, a kilometer (0.6 mile) from the presidential Miraflores palace, where they met “firm resistance,” the government said in a statement. Witnesses reported hearing gunshots at about 3 a.m. (0700 GMT) in the area.

An armored vehicle is seen outside an outpost of the Venezuelan National Guards during a protest in Caracas, Venezuela January 21, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

An armored vehicle is seen outside an outpost of the Venezuelan National Guards during a protest in Caracas, Venezuela January 21, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Protesters later burned trash and a car outside the outpost, where the officers were arrested, in a sign of growing tensions following Maduro’s inauguration to a second term that governments around the world have called illegitimate.

Though the incident signals discontent within the armed forces, it appeared to involve only low-ranking officers with little capacity to force change in the hyperinflationary economy as many people suffer from shortages of food and medicine.

“The armed forces categorically reject this type of action, which is most certainly motivated by the dark interests of the extreme right,” the government said in a statement read out on state television.

Maduro was inaugurated on Jan. 10 under an avalanche of criticism that his leadership was illegitimate following a 2018 election widely viewed as fraudulent, with countries around the world disavowing his government.

Opposition leaders and exiled dissidents have called on the armed forces to turn against Maduro, which the president has denounced as efforts to encourage a coup against him.

The opposition-controlled congress’s head, Juan Guaido, said the uprising was a sign of the armed forces’ depressed state of mind. Congress was committed to offering guarantees to officers who helped with “the constitution’s reconstitution,” he said, though he did not want the military to fall into internal conflict.

“We want it to stand as one man on the side of the people, the constitution, and against the usurpation,” he said on Twitter.

In the videos that circulated on Twitter, a group of armed soldiers stood in darkness apparently at the Cotiza outpost while their leader addressed the camera and called for Venezuelans to support their revolt.

“You all asked that we take to the streets to defend the constitution. Here we are. Here we have the troops. It’s today when the people come out to support us,” said the man in the video, who identified himself as Luis Bandres.

The government said the men took two vehicles from a police station in the Macarao district in the west of Caracas before driving to a barracks in the eastern Petare slum, where they stole an arms cache and kidnapped four officials.

After they attacked the Cotiza outpost in the early hours of the morning, security forces surrounded them. In response, several dozen residents barricaded streets and set fire to rubbish as they chanted “Don’t hand yourself in,” according to Reuters witnesses. Troops fired tear gas to disperse them.

“These soldiers are right to rise up. We need a political change, because we don’t have any water or electricity,” said Angel Rivas, a 49-year-old laborer at the protest.

The United States and many Latin American nations say Maduro has become a dictator whose failed state-led policies have plunged Venezuela into its worst ever economic crisis, with inflation approaching 2 million percent.

Maduro says a U.S.-directed “economic war” is trying to force him from power.

(Additional reporting by Vivian Sequera and Corina Pons; Writing by Brian Ellsworth and Angus Berwick; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

North Korea’s three new military leaders are loyal to Kim, not policies

FILE PHOTO North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects the construction site of the Wonsan-Kalma coastal tourist area as Kim Su-gil (3rd L), newly appointed director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People's Army, looks on, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang. KCNA/via REUTERS/Files

By Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea’s new top three military officers are known for their unquestioning support of leader Kim Jong Un and are flexible enough to accept the massive changes that may come from any deal with U.S. President Donald Trump, people who follow the secretive country say.

They replaced older, more conservative officers who have been recently sacked, according to a senior U.S. official and North Korea leadership analysts in Seoul.

As Washington pursues a negotiated end to Pyongyang’s nuclear program, U.S. officials believe there was some dissent in the military about Kim’s negotiations with South Korea and the United States, a complete reversal of the North’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and historic hostility. It was not clear if the sacked officers were responsible.

Citing an unidentified intelligence official, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said No Kwang Chol, first vice minister in the defense ministry, had replaced Pak Yong Sik as the defense chief, while Ri Yong Gil had returned as the army’s chief of general staff in place of Ri Myong Su.

The appointments could not be immediately confirmed.

North Korean media had earlier reported that Army General Kim Su Gil had succeeded Kim Jong Gak as director of the army’s powerful General Political Bureau, one of the most senior positions in the country.

The changes are a shock because they take place so close to each other and come just ahead of the scheduled June 12 summit between Trump and Kim in Singapore.

Some analysts said Kim was replacing older officers who were wedded to the country’s nuclear doctrine with loyalists who would follow any changes he may make following the summit.

“There would be a denuclearization roadmap coming out of the summit with Trump, and it would be burdensome for Kim to have hawks who could be agitated by any desertion of the nuclear program,” said Cheong Seong-Chang, a senior fellow at South Korea’s Sejong Institute.


Trump wants North Korea to “denuclearize” in return for relief from economic sanctions. Pyongyang sees its nuclear weapons as vital to its survival but Kim has said he plans to focus on economic development.

The moves are also in line with Kim’s years-long efforts to consolidate power by purging senior officers and promoting trusted younger advisers to the politburo and other core positions.

The new officers could also provide some insurance against any attempt to seize power while Kim is away at the summit, experts say.

“All these guys are Kim Jong Un people,” said Michael Madden, a North Korea leadership expert at Johns Hopkins University’s 38 North website. “Kim Jong Un is going to put people in place he can trust, who are loyal to him.”

In addition to being hardcore loyalists, Madden said the three officers were experienced in dealing with foreigners, which was seen as a plus point. But it was not immediately clear whether any of them would accompany Kim to Singapore.

Kim Su Gil, 68, is a four-star Army general who is one of Kim Jong Un’s most trusted aides, accompanying him on various military inspections and public events.

He was among those involved in the purge and execution of Kim Jong Un’s powerful uncle, Jang Song Thaek, in December 2013. Then he was tapped to lead the party’s Pyongyang chamber in early 2014, a job which Madden said was meant for “housecleaning” the administration of Jang’s confidants.

Kim’s appointment to the General Political Bureau is part of Kim Jong Un’s drive to expand the party’s control over the military, said Ken Gause, director of the International Affairs Group at CNA, a non-profit research and analysis organization based in Arlington, Virginia.


All of the newly promoted officials are younger than their predecessors, even though they are all in their 60s.

The three were also named in May 2016 as alternate members of the ruling Workers’ Party politburo – the opaque, all-powerful governing body where top state affairs are decided.

Ri Yong Gil served as chief of staff from 2013 to 2016 until he reportedly fell from grace for a brief period, the analysts said.

In the early 2000s, Ri was commander of an Army unit that defends the perimeter around Pyongyang, a sensitive position that Gause said is traditionally “personally selected” by the leader of the country.

In March 2013, he was seen attending a late night meeting convened by Kim to order missile units on “standby” to strike U.S. and South Korean military installations after a U.S. strategic bomber flew over South Korea.

In February 2016, he was briefly demoted to deputy chief and three stars from four for an unspecified reason. South Korean intelligence officials said he had been executed for corruption and abuse of power, only to see him appear at a major party assembly as a politburo candidate three months later.

No Kwang Chol, the 62-year-old relatively less known new defense chief, previously headed the Second Economic Committee, which oversees defense production including the nuclear and missile programs.

“This is where you would send someone you could trust,” said Hong Min, head of North Korea research at the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.

“No is a person who has come to the fore in the Kim Jong Un era, as a up-and-coming and trusted aide. It is not strange at all if he becomes defense minister.”

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Jeongmin Kim; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)