South America

Venezuela says rebel pilot killed in police operation

Oscar Perez. Source: AAP

Rogue pilot Oscar Perez was among seven killed during a bloody police assault to arrest him, Venezuela’s government has said.

Police swooped on Perez and his armed group holed up outside Caracas on Monday, setting off a fierce gun battle in which two police officers were also killed.

It was initially unclear whether the 36-year-old – Venezuela's most wanted man – had been killed or captured.

His family had pleaded for news of his condition from the government, until Tuesday's announcement drew a line under the latest bloody chapter of efforts to unseat President Nicolas Maduro.

Perez had been wanted since he used a stolen helicopter to bomb Venezuela's Supreme Court at the height of anti-government protests last June.

Mr Maduro had accused him of attempting a "coup" and being in the pay of the CIA.

Interior Minister Nestor Reverol told reporters in Caracas that four men and two women arrested in the so-called Operation Gideon "are being prosecuted at this time".

Eight police officers had been wounded in the battle, he said.

"The acts committed by this criminal gang qualify as terrorism, constituting clear and flagrant attacks against democratic institutions," said Mr Reverol, who was flanked by senior military and police officers.

On the run

A bloodied Perez posted videos on Instagram during the gun battle on Monday, saying he and his men were pinned down by snipers and wanted to surrender.

The government accused his men of opening fire on police during negotiations to surrender.

It said on Monday that those who resisted had been killed.

In June, Perez and unidentified accomplices flew over Caracas in a police helicopter and dropped four grenades on the Supreme Court before opening fire on the interior ministry. There were no casualties.

Perez had been on the run since.

The 36-year-old former elite police officer and actor has regularly taunted the government during his time in hiding, saying he was fighting against Mr Maduro's "tyranny" and the "narco-dictatorship."

Two weeks after the attack on the Supreme Court, Perez turned up at a Caracas ceremony to commemorate those who had died in the wave of anti-government protests.

In all, 125 people were killed between April and July as authorities used force to put down protests to remove Mr Maduro.

Eventually, the protests fizzled out and the socialist president prevailed, despite a staggering crisis caused by falling oil prices, spiralling inflation and corruption.

Thorn in government's side

Perez urged Venezuelans "not to lose heart. Fight, take to the streets, it is time we are free".

In a country enduring deadly political violence, Perez quickly cast himself as a real-life action man in interviews and photos on his Instagram account, which show him doing various James Bond-style shooting stunts honed during a 16-year career in the elite police force.

"I am a helicopter pilot, combat diver and free-fall parachutist," he was quoted as saying by the newspaper Panorama.

That was in an interview ahead of the release of "Suspended Death," a film in which he appeared.

"I am also a father, friend and actor... I am a man who goes out into the street without knowing whether he will come back home again."

In December, Perez claimed responsibility for an attack on a military base in the country's north that yielded a haul of 25 Kalashnikovs and other weapons for his group, which was increasingly becoming a thorn in the government's side.

Vice President Tareck El-Aissami called him a "deserter, fanatic and traitor to the homeland".

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