By SCOTT SMITH and CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA Associated Press
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Armored vehicles plowed into anti-government protesters as troops loyal to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro tried to restore order Tuesday after opposition leader Juan Guaidó took to the streets in a risky attempt to lead a military uprising against the embattled socialist.
It was by far the most serious challenge yet to Maduro’s rule and threatened to engulf the oil-rich nation in violence after months of mostly peaceful protests led by Guaidó since he declared himself interim president with the backing of the U.S. and dozens of other countries.
Still, the surprise rebellion, dubbed “Operation Freedom,” seemed to have garnered only limited military support.
The dramatic events began early Tuesday when Guaidó, flanked by a few dozen national guardsmen and some armored crowd-control vehicles, released a three-minute video filmed near a Caracas air base in which he urged civilians and others in the armed forces to join a final push to topple Maduro.
In a surprise, Leopoldo Lopez, his political mentor and the nation’s most-prominent opposition activist, stood alongside him. Detained in 2014 for leading a previous round of anti-government unrest. Lopez said he had been released from house arrest by security forces adhering to an order from Guaidó.
“I want to tell the Venezuelan people: This is the moment to take to the streets and accompany these patriotic soldiers,” Lopez declred.
As the two opposition leaders coordinated actions from vehicles parked on a highway overpass, troops loyal to Maduro sporadically fired tear gas from inside the adjacent Carlota air base.
A crowd that quickly swelled to a few thousand scurried for cover, reappearing later with Guaidó at a nearby plaza away from the disturbances.
A smaller group of masked youths stayed behind on the highway, lobbing rocks and Molotov cocktails toward the air base, and setting a government bus on fire. Amid the mayhem, an armored utility vehicle drove at full speed into the crowd. Two demonstrators, their heads and legs bloodied, were rushed away on a motorcycle.
“It’s now or never,” said one of the young rebellious soldiers, his face covered in the blue bandanna worn by the few dozen insurgent soldiers
Amid the confusion, Maduro tried to project an image of strength, saying he had spoken to several regional military commanders who reaffirmed their loyalty.
“Nerves of steel!” he said in a message posted on Twitter.
The events, playing out in the opposition’s stronghold in a wealthier neighborhood of eastern Caracas, appeared not to have triggered a broader military revolt.
Flanked by top military commanders, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López condemned Guaido’s move as a “terrorist” act and “coup attempt” that was bound to fail like past uprisings.
“Those who try to take Miraflores with violence will be met with violence,” he said on national television, referring to the presidential palace where hundreds of government supporters, some of them brandishing firearms, had gathered in response to a call to defend Maduro.
He later said that Col. Yerzon Jimenez, the operations head of a national guard unit, was shot in the neck by demonstrators.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said the “right-wing extremists” would not succeed in fracturing the armed forces, which have largely stood with the socialist leader throughout the months of turmoil.
“Since 2002, we’ve seen the same pattern,” Arreaza told The Associated Press, adding that most of Caracas was calm. “They call for violence, a coup, and send people into the streets so that there are confrontations and deaths. And then from the blood they try to construct a narrative.”
Small groups of protesters threw up blockades of debris at several downtown intersections about 10 blocks from the presidential palace. But police in riot gear moved in quickly to clear the roads.
Meanwhile, most shops and businesses were closed and the streets of the capital unusually quiet, as people huddled at home to await the outcome of the day’s drama.
Guaidó said he called for the uprising to restore Venezuela’s constitutional order, broken when Maduro was sworn in earlier this year for a second term following elections boycotted by the opposition and considered illegitimate by dozens of countries.
For weeks, Guaidó had been promising a final push against Maduro, dubbed “Operation Freedom,” to coincide with planned protests Wednesday.
But few observers gave it much chance of success as a stalemate emerged that left regular Venezuelans, already struggling from hyperinflation and blackouts, in the middle of a political battle between Guaidó and Maduro, who has managed to preserve the backing of his military as well as allies like Russia and Cuba.
Guaidó said that in the coming hours he would release a list of top commanders supporting the uprising. There were unconfirmed reports that Gen. Manuel Christopher Figuera, who heads the feared intelligence agency responsible for keeping Lopez in state custody, was among members of the security forces who had decided to flip.
Anti-government demonstrators gathered in several other cities, although there were no reports that Guaidó’s supporters had taken control of any military installations.
“The armed forces have taken the right decision,” said Guaidó. “With the support of the Venezuelan people and the backing of our constitution they are on the right side of history.”
As events unfolded, governments from around the world expressed support for Guaidó while reiterating calls to avoid violent confrontation.
U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, in a Twitter post directed at defense minister Padrino, said the armed forces “must protect the Constitution and the Venezuelan people.”
Meanwhile, Spain’s socialist caretaker government urged restraint, while the governments of Cuba and Bolivia reiterated their support for Maduro.
“We hope with all of our strength that there is no bloodshed. We support a peaceful democratic process in Venezuela. We support the immediate holding of an election for a new president,” Spanish government spokeswoman Isabel Celaá said.
Joshua Goodman in Cucuta, Colombia, contributed to this report.