Caracas (AFP) - Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's regime defied the US on Thursday to arrest a top aide of opposition leader Juan Guaido, whom Washington recognizes as the crisis-hit country's interim leader.
Guaido and the opposition-controlled National Assembly denounced the arrest of Roberto Marrero, charging on Twitter that he was taken from his home during a pre-dawn raid by intelligence officers.
The United States has repeatedly warned Maduro against arresting Guaido or his aides.
The US, along with a grouping of Latin American nations plus Canada and the European Union, condemned the arrest and demanded Marrero's release.
"They have grabbed Roberto Marrero, my chief of staff. He yelled out that they planted two rifles and a grenade" as a pretext for the arrest, Guaido tweeted.
"The raid happened at around 2:00 am (0600 GMT). We don't know his whereabouts. He must be released immediately."
Guaido later told a news conference that "we won't be intimidated" by the "vile, vulgar kidnapping."
Maduro and Guaido both claim to be Venezuela's legitimate leader but Maduro, 56, retains the loyalty of the military brass and has control of state apparatus.
Guaido, 35, declared himself interim president on January 23 and has the backing of the US and more than 50 other countries.
"The United States condemns raids by Maduro's security services and detention of Roberto Marrero, Chief of Staff to Interim President @jguaido. We call for his immediate release. We will hold accountable those involved," US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Twitter.
US President Donald Trump has said, as recently as Tuesday, that "all options" remain on the table in his drive to bring down Maduro, implying military action if he deemed it necessary.
So far, however, the power struggle in Venezuela has bogged down in an impasse, with Maduro railing daily about the US "imperialists" trying to dislodge him and Guaido touring the country to rally supporters and pledging he'll be taking over "very soon."
- 'Ransacked' home -
Maduro's forces have reinforced obstacles blocking a border bridge linking Venezuela and Colombia to prevent Guaido's supporters trucking in US aid. Extra shipping containers and concrete blocks have been moved into place on the bridge.
In addition to seizing Marrero early Thursday, officers of the Bolivarian Intelligence Service, or SEBIN, raided the home in the same building of an opposition lawmaker, Sergio Vergara.
Vergara was not arrested. He told reporters that he saw Marrero bundled off into the street.
He said around 15 SEBIN officers threw him to the floor and "ransacked" his own home for around two hours, while asking where to find Marrero, a lawyer who works in the National Assembly.
"They started to bash on the door of Roberto Marrero's place, which is a few meters from my door, until they were able to get inside," he said.
"The dictatorship is abducting citizens," he added.
According to a human rights NGO, Foro Penal, Venezuelan authorities are holding 866 people on political grounds, most of them without trial.
The Lima Group, which includes Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama and Peru, issued a statement "calling for Nicolas Maduro's illegitimate and dictatorial regime to immediately release Mr. Marrero" and leave Vergara alone.
"We demand the end of harassment of Venezuelans upholding democracy and the systematic practice of arbitrary detention and torture in Venezuela," said the statement issued by Peru's foreign ministry.
A UN spokesman in New York said the world body was "concerned" by the arrest and called on "all actors in Venezuela to take immediate steps to lower tensions and refrain from any action that could lead to further escalation."
- US warning -
The United States has cautioned Maduro to not lay a finger on Guaido or National Assembly deputies, threatening unspecified repercussions.
In January, Trump's National Security Advisor John Bolton tweeted: "Any violence and intimidation against US diplomatic personnel, Venezuela's democratic leader, Juan Guaido, or the National Assembly itself would represent a grave assault on the rule of law and will be met with a significant response."
The United States this month withdrew all its diplomats from Venezuela.
In just over a month, on April 28, increasingly harsh US sanctions on Venezuela will intensify to a critical level with a ban on all oil sales to the United States, Venezuela's main crude buyer.
The step is expected to worsen already dire economic conditions ravaging Venezuela, a once-wealthy South American nation that has become impoverished under Maduro.