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Opposition leader denies ties to Venezuela invasion plotters

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó on Monday denied having anything to do with an ex-Green Beret who claimed responsibility for a deadly beach invasion aimed at arresting socialist leader Nicolás Maduro. The government, meanwhile, said it has mobilized more than 25,000 troops to hunt for other rebel cells.

Guaidó said in a statement that he has “no relationship nor responsibility for any actions” taken by the U.S. war veteran, Jordan Goudreau, who repeated assertions that Guaidó had a contract with his security company, though he said he was paid only a tiny share of the amount agreed upon. That claim could pose a danger for Guaidó, who has been harassed but not arrested in the year since he declared himself Venezuela's legitimate leader, a role recognized by the U.S. and some 60 other nations.

The three-time Bronze Star U.S. combat veteran claims to have helped organize a seaborne raid from Colombia early Sunday on the Venezuelan coast, which the government said it foiled, killing eight insurgents and arresting two others. He said the operation had received no aid from Guaidó or the U.S. or Colombian governments.

Goudreau said by telephone Monday that 52 other fighters — including two U.S. veterans — had infiltrated Venezuelan territory and were in the first stage of a mission to recruit members of the security forces to join their cause.

“That’s going to take time,” Goudreau told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “The ultimate goal has never changed — it’s to liberate Venezuela.” The government's chief of strategic operations, Adm. Remigio Ceballos, announced that more than 25,000 soldiers were mounting search operations to ensure the country is free of "mercenaries and paramilitaries.

Venezuelan authorities said Monday they arrested another eight accused “mercenaries” in a coastal town and showed images on state TV of several unidentified men handcuffed and lying prone in a street.

One video depicted security forces handling a man authorities identified as Venezuelan National Guardsman Capt. Antonio Sequea, who participated in a barracks revolt against Maduro a year ago. Goudreau had identified Sequea as a commander working with him on the ground in Venezuela.

“Venezuela holds the governments of Donald Trump and Colombia's Ivan Duque responsible for the unknown and dangerous consequences of this provocative mercenary aggression," Maduro's government said in a letter to the international community.

The AP was unable to verify either the government’s or Goudreau’s version of events. Opposition politicians and U.S. authorities issued statements suggesting Maduro's allies had fabricated the assault. Officials have not released the full identities of those they say were killed or detained, though they identified one of the fallen as a man involved with Goudreau's training camp in Colombia.

An AP investigation published Friday found that Goudreau had been working with a retired Venezuelan army general — who now faces U.S. narcotics charges — to train dozens of deserters from Venezuela’s security forces at secret camps inside neighboring Colombia. The goal was to mount a cross-border raid that would end in Maduro’s arrest.

But the ragtag group lacked funding and U.S. government support. It also appears to have been penetrated by Maduro’s extensive Cuban-backed intelligence network. Goudreau and retired Venezuelan Capt. Javier Nieto, who both live in Florida, issued a video late Sunday claiming they had organized the mission to detain Maduro that they call “Operation Gideon.” Goudreau, wearing a New York Yankees cap, spoke in English.

Goudreau said Monday he’s talking with wealthy donors around the world to raise money for the second phase of the mission and hopes to raise a force of up to 5,000, he said. “I don’t care about politics. I don’t care about people’s careers,” he said. “I care about my men on the ground right now who are in the most dangerous phase of the operation. I’m trying to get financial support in order to save their lives and to help them be successful.”

Goudreau, 43, said 52 of his men were still on the ground and cells were being activated inside Venezuela. He said he hoped to join the rebels soon. There was no outward sign of fighting in the capital or elsewhere on Monday.

In an interview late Sunday, Goudreau gave Miami-based journalist Patricia Poleo what he said was an eight-page contract signed by Guaidó and two political advisers in Miami in October for $213 million. The alleged “general services” contract doesn’t specify what work his company, Silvercorp USA, was to undertake.

He also released via Poleo a four-minute audio recording, made on a hidden cellphone, of the moment when he purportedly signed the contract as Guaidó participated by videoconference. In the recording, a person he claims is Guaido can be heard giving vague encouragement in broken English but not discussing any military plans.

“Let’s get to work!,” said the man who is purportedly Guaido. The AP was unable to confirm the veracity of the recording. Goudreau said Monday he received no more than an initial $50,000 payment from the Guaidó team and instead the Venezuelan soldiers he was advising had to scrounge for donations from Venezuelan migrants driving for car share service Uber in Colombia.

Colombian officials, for their part, denied any involvement in Goudreau's operation and in March announced their had seized weapons that had been destined for Venezuela. Venezuelan officials insisted that both Colombia and the U.S. were backing the operation and on Sunday, socialist party chief Diosdado Cabello said that one of the captured insurgents claimed to be an agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration — an agency that has accused many members of the government of involvement in drug trafficking.

Both U.S. and Colombian officials dismissed the Venezuelan allegations. Venezuela has been in a deepening political and economic crisis under Maduro’s rule. Crumbling public services such as running water, electricity and medical care have driven nearly 5 million to migrate. But Maduro still controls all levers of power despite a U.S.-led campaign to oust him. It recently indicted Maduro as a drug trafficker and offered a $15 million reward for his arrest.

Guaidó accused Maduro’s government of seizing on the reported invasion to draw attention away from the country’s problems. “Of course, there are patriotic members of the military willing to fight for Venezuela,” Guaidó said. “But it’s clear that what happened in Vargas is another distraction ploy.”

Goodman reported from Miami.

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