CARACAS – Intelligence police raided the office of Juan Guaidó on Tuesday, while the U.S.-backed opposition leader was travelling in Europe seeking to bolster support for his campaign to oust Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
Masked officers from feared SEBIN intelligence police unit blocked the building's entrances and lined the street with their vehicles, barring entry by lawmakers aligned with Guaidó.
The United States and about 60 other nations recognize Guaidó, who heads the opposition-dominated National Assembly, as Venezuela's legitimate president. They contend Maduro's 2018 re-election was invalid and marred by fraud. Guaidó, however, has no control over government institution or the military.
Legislator Manuela Bolívar confirmed the raid on his office, saying she was allowed to go to the door of the third-floor space, where officers were still inside working inside.
Lawmakers called it an illegal search.
“We don't know what they're stolen or what they've brought with them," legislator Ángel Torres said. “They usually enter without a judge's order and set up a show saying they found this or that or any artifact they might have planted.”
In November, unidentified armed men with their faces covered raided the headquarters of Guaidó’s political party, taking cellphones, computer and ID cards from staffers the night before a large street protest against Maduro.
Tuesday's police action came just hours after opposition lawmakers called off an attempt to hold a National Assembly session in the congress building across town, saying they wanted to avoid clashes with security forces and armed government supporters blocking entry.
Juan Pablo Guanipa, first vice president of the National Assembly, said from the headquarters of a political party that streets leading to their legislative building had been “militarized” by armed groups, so they were not going to attempt an entry until next week.
Instead, the lawmakers held a makeshift meeting on a public square in an opposition-friendly part of Caracas away from downtown. They sat on chairs set up before a stage amid trees and backed by their flag-colored streamer and emblem.
It was the third consecutive week that groups of armed civilians known as “colectivos” and security forces blocked access for members of the National Assembly, which is the last major national institution under opposition control and the center of the struggle over who governs the crisis-wracked nation.
Last week, a caravan of SUVs carrying lawmakers toward the building was struck with rocks and poles by civilians and gunfire was heard. On Jan. 5, Guaidó attempted to jump a fence to get in only to be rebuffed by riot police.
Guanipa called on supporters to march with lawmakers to retake the National Assembly chambers next week, setting up a potential clash with the backers of Maduro.
“We are going to show them that we are fighting for the freedom of Venezuela,” Guanipa said. “We'll demonstrate, as we always have, that we're absolutely ready to do whatever is required to achieve democracy in Venezuela.”
During their remote session, lawmakers condemned officials for the disappearance of Ismael León, a deputy in the National Assembly who they said was swept up by security forces shortly after leaving the party headquarters headed to the legislative building.
“His family, colleagues and fellow party members have absolutely no idea where he is,” opposition lawmaker Adriana Pichardo said. Officials have not commented on León's whereabouts.
After the meeting, lawmakers accused officials of trying to confiscate two trucks returning the chairs they had used.
Maduro backers this month attempted to undermine Guaidó's standing by swearing in another deputy as leader of the congress despite lacking a majority. Maduro maintains that breakaway group is now the legitimate legislature.
Local news media on Tuesday showed that group meeting in the congressional chambers, led by lawmaker Luis Parra, who claims the body’s presidency.
Guaidó is on an international tour to build support, breaking a year-old travel ban ordered by the Maduro-loyal Supreme Court.
Guaidó met Monday in Colombia with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and was in London on Tuesday to meet British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Gaudió was also scheduled speak at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Maduro's government was shoring up its own international backing, as Foreign Affairs Minister Jorge Arreaza met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran.
Associated Press writers Fabiola Sánchez and Jorge Rueda contributed to this report.