Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez is a free man and has been reunited with his family in Madrid following a daring escape from Caracas after more than six years in confinement.
Mr Lopez arrived in the Spanish capital on Sunday following what aides described as a whirlwind escape from the Spanish ambassador’s residence in Caracas, where he had been holed up since leading a failed US-backed military putsch against President Nicolas Maduro in April 2019.
After months of planning, Mr Lopez fled Venezuela by sea and arrived in the nearby Caribbean island of Aruba on Friday, according to two people close to the opposition leader who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Aides insisted the departure was not the result of negotiations with the government, as many supporters and even opponents of the socialist government have speculated.
Mr Maduro’s government has yet to comment, though on Sunday the president removed his interior minister, General Nestor Reverol, who oversees the SEBIN intelligence police that stations a heavily armed contingent outside the Spanish ambassador’s residence.
Without referring to Mr Lopez, Mr Maduro said General Reverol would be replaced by former Defence Minister Carmen Melendez and instead be assigned to a new role as electricity minister.
Officers from SEBIN have detained several people working at the diplomatic mission, including a woman who served meals to Mr Lopez and private security guards, according to Mr Lopez’s allies.
SEBIN on Saturday tried to search the homes of officers with Spain’s national police posted to the diplomatic compound in search of information about Mr Lopez’s whereabouts.
Spain’s government condemned that action, saying it violated the Vienna convention governing international diplomatic relations.
“We call attention to this new abuse by the dictatorship’s henchmen,” Mr Lopez’s Popular Will party said in a statement, referring to the detentions.
We’ll continue working day and night to attain the freedom that we Venezuelans all deserveLeopoldo Lopez
Venezuela’s government, meanwhile, issued a statement on Sunday blasting Spain for assisting the “terrorist” Mr Lopez in his escape.
It called Spanish Ambassador Jesus Silva the “main organiser” and “accomplice” in Mr Lopez’s flight, but refrained from expelling the diplomat, who was recently recalled and is scheduled to conclude his posting in Caracas next month.
Mr Lopez, 49, has yet to make a public appearance. But he said Saturday night on social media that the decision to leave his homeland had not been “simple”.
“We’ll continue working day and night to attain the freedom that we Venezuelans all deserve,” Mr Lopez tweeted late on Saturday.
He said more details on plans for democratic change in Venezuela will be announced in the coming days.
His party said: “After seven years of persecution and unjust imprisonment inside Venezuela, Leopoldo Lopez is still not totally free, like all Venezuelans, so long as there exists a dictatorship that violates the human rights of the people.”
It is unclear how Mr Lopez left the ambassador’s residence, given the heavy state security presence permanently stationed outside the property. Travel by land has grown increasingly difficult because of widespread fuel shortages and checkpoints manned by security forces have proliferated across the country.
In a message directed to Mr Maduro on Twitter, US-backed opposition leader Juan Guaido said his political mentor had been able to leave Venezuela by “evading your repressive apparatus”.
Mr Lopez was sentenced in 2015 to nearly 14 years in prison after being convicted of inciting violence during anti-government protests in which three people died and dozens were wounded. He was released from prison and placed under house arrest after more than three years in a military jail.