Venezuelan forces kidnap opposition leader Juan Guaido's chief of staff in raid

Deirdre Shesgreen

WASHINGTON – Venezuelan intelligence officials kidnapped opposition leader Juan Guaido's chief of staff and ransacked a second opposition official's residence Thursday, Guaido and other officials said Thursday.

During an early morning raid that escalated an already tense political standoff, armed officers descended on the apartment of Roberto Marrero, a lawyer and top adviser to Guaido. The intelligence officials, who are loyal to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, planted two rifles and a grenade at the apartment and took Marrero to an undisclosed location, according to an account posted by Guaido on Twitter. 

"We don't know his whereabouts," Guaido said. "He must be released immediately."

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo quickly denounced the arrest and called for Marrero's release.

“The United States condemns raids by Maduro’s security services and detention of Roberto Marrero, Chief of Staff to Interim President @jguaido," Pompeo said in his own Twitter message. "We call for his immediate release. We will hold accountable those involved.”

Pompeo later suggested the U.S. had identified those involved in the kidnapping. 

“We think we understand how this went down, we think we understand those who were involved," he told Fox News. "We will do all that we can to hold the individuals accountable, those who conducted this activity and those who ordered it.”

The Maduro-aligned police also broke into the home of Assemblyman Sergio Vergara, a Guaido ally, and arrested his driver Luis Aguilar, according to an account from Guaido's representative in Washington. 

"This is a solid confirmation that the regime is seeking to attack president Guaido’s inner circle and poses a direct threat on his integrity," read the diplomatic alert from Guaido's Washington envoy. "This is also a confirmation of the escalation by the regime that only furthers conflict in the nation."

Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a leading critic of Maduro, said Thursday's raid suggests the Venezuelan regime is preparing to move against Gauido himself.

Maduro's forces are testing the international community for its response "to calculate how & when to arrest Guaido," the Florida Republican tweeted.

The Trump administration has warned Maduro not to arrest Guaido, saying the international response would be swift. But officials have not specified what steps President Trump would take if that happens.

More: Power out, water scarce, looting: What is Trump administration's next move in Venezuela?

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The Trump administration has recognized Guaido as the legitimate president of Venezuela and labeled Maduro a corrupt usurper. The U.S. has slapped oil and gold sanctions on Venezuela and taken other steps to pressure Maduro to step down. 

The country is reeling from the political crisis, as well as rampant food and medicine shortages.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Venezuelan forces kidnap opposition leader Juan Guaido's chief of staff in raid