CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Security forces loyal to President Nicolás Maduro on Tuesday surrounded and closed the building that houses the offices of opposition lawmaker Juan Guaidó, who was in London as part of an international tour seeking to bolster support for ousting Venezuela’s socialist leader.
Officers from two elite police units with their faces covered blocked the building’s entrances and shut off and lined the street with their vehicles.
It was unclear whether the police were inside Guaidó’s third floor office. Lawmakers in his coalition gathered on the sidewalk outside said no legislative staffer were inside the office to report what was happening. The legislators, however, said they thought the officers were carrying out an illegal raid.
“This is the regime’s arbitrary actions,” lawmaker Manuela Bolívar said outside the building. “Why? Because the interim President Guaidó is on an international tour.”
The United States and about 60 other nations recognize Guaidó, who heads the National Assembly, as Venezuela’s legitimate president, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was invalid and marred by fraud. Guaidó, however, has no control over government institution or the military.
The 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 writer Fabiola Sánchez contributed to this report.