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Venezuelan president claims helicopter fired on country's supreme court

Venezuela's president Nicolas Maduro gives a news conference in Caracas Picture Ariana Cubillos/AP

Venezuela's president has claimed a helicopter fired on the country's Supreme Court in a confusing incident that he said was part of a conspiracy to destabilise his socialist government.

There were reports of gunfire as a blue helicopter buzzed through central Caracas.

The gunfire took place as Nicolas Maduro was speaking live on state television to pro-government journalists gathered at the presidential palace.

He said the helicopter fired on offices of the court and launched a grenade that did not explode, before buzzing over the interior ministry.

Mr Maduro said the nation's air defence was activated, thwarting what he called a "terrorist attack" and part of an ongoing coup attempt.

"It could have caused a tragedy with several dozen dead and injured," he said.

But many opponents on social media accused the president himself of trying to spread fear to help justify a crackdown against Venezuelans seeking to block his plans to rewrite the constitution.

Adding to the intrigue, pictures of a blue police helicopter carrying an anti-government banner appeared on social media around the same time as a video in which a pilot for the police squad, identified as Oscar Perez, called for a rebellion against Mr Maduro's "tyranny" as part of a coalition of members of the security forces.

"We have two choices – be judged tomorrow by our conscience and the people or begin today to free ourselves from this corrupt government," the man said, while reading from a statement with four people dressed in military fatigues, ski masks and carrying what looked like assault rifles standing behind him.

Venezuela has been rocked by anti-government protests that have left at least 75 people dead and hundreds injured in the last three months.

Mr Maduro said one of the pilots involved in the alleged attack used to fly for his former interior minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres, who he accused of working for the CIA.

Mr Rodriguez Torres, who has been leading a campaign against Mr Maduro made up of left-wing supporters of the late Hugo Chavez, dismissed the accusation as baseless.

The helicopter incident capped a volatile 24 hours that began with widespread looting in the coastal city of Maracay on Monday night and continued on Tuesday when opposition MPs got into a heated scuffle with security forces assigned to protect the National Assembly.

At least 68 supermarkets, pharmacies and off licences were looted and several government offices burned following anti-government protests in Maracay, about a 90-minute drive from Caracas.

The opposition MPs scuffled with national guardsmen as they tried to enter the National Assembly.

At nightfall, a few dozen people were still gathered inside the neo-classical building as pro-government supporters stood outside, threatening violence.

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