By Steve Holland and Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON, D.C. Weds. May 6, 2020 (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Tuesday denied any involvement by the U.S. government in what Venezuelan officials have called a failed armed incursion in the South American country that led to the capture of two American “mercenaries.”
Trump made the comment to reporters at the White House after socialist Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Monday said authorities there had detained two U.S. citizens working with a U.S. military veteran who has claimed responsibility for the foiled operation.
“We’ll find out. We just heard about it,” Trump said when asked about the incident and the Americans’ arrests. “But it has nothing to do with our government.”
In a state television address, Maduro said authorities arrested 13 “terrorists” on Monday involved in what he described as a plot coordinated with Washington to enter the country via the Caribbean coast and oust him.
Eight people were killed during the incursion attempt on Sunday, Venezuelan authorities said.
Maduro showed what he said were the U.S. passports and other identification cards belonging to Airan Berry and Luke Denman, whom he said were in custody and had been working with Jordan Goudreau, an American military veteran who leads a Florida-based security company called Silvercorp USA.
The two detained Americans, former special operations forces members who had served with Goudreau, were believed to be in the custody of Venezuelan military intelligence, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The State Department did not provide any immediate comment on the arrests. U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, had strongly denied any U.S. government role in the incursions.
Washington has waged a campaign of tough economic sanctions and diplomatic measures against Venezuela in an effort to oust Maduro, accusing him of having rigged elections in 2018.
But while Trump has repeatedly said all options are on the table, his administration has shown no apparent interest in military action as it pursues what it calls a “maximum pressure” strategy against Maduro.
Maduro’s government, however, says the United States wants to control the OPEC member nation’s massive oil reserves.
GUAIDO: MADURO SEEKS TO DISTRACT
Since early 2019, the United States and dozens of other countries have recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as the legitimate interim president.
But Maduro remains in power, backed by the military as well as Russia, Cuba and China, which some U.S. officials say privately is a source of frustration for Trump.
Guaido – often derided by Maduro as a U.S. puppet – cast doubt on the government’s version of Sunday’s events. He insisted that Maduro was seeking to distract from other problems in recent days, including a deadly prison riot and a violent gang battle in Caracas, the capital.
The Venezuelan government, presiding over an economic meltdown, is also struggling to cope with the global spread of the coronavirus.
Monday’s arrests come after Maduro’s government on Sunday announced it had thwarted a “mercenary incursion.”
Goudreau released a video identifying himself as an organizer of the operation, alongside dissident Venezuelan military officer Javier Nieto. He identified one of the fighters as “Commander Sequea,” which appeared to be a reference to Antonio Sequea, who was identified by state television as one of the people arrested.
Silvercorp’s website describes Goudreau as a “highly decorated Special Forces Iraq and Afghanistan veteran.”
(Reporting by Steve Holland, Matt Spetalnick and Tim Ahmann; writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Sandra Maler and Jonathan Oatis)