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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan police on Tuesday arrested Hugo Chavez's powerful former spy chief, on accusations of sowing unrest as he leads a movement of disgruntled leftists seeking to replace President Nicolas Maduro.
Miguel Rodriguez Torres was speaking at an event organized by female activists from his political movement in a Caracas hotel when he calmly stopped his speech and left the podium, saying he had "received a notification that requires me to urgently leave."
Moments later, he was escorted into the back of a police vehicle and driven away by what witnesses said were heavily armed agents from the Sebin intelligence police — the same force he created in 2010 while serving as Chavez's trusted adviser.
Indira Urbaneja, an aide who was also detained at the event, said the two were taken to the Sebin headquarters before she was released and Rodriguez Torres was taken to another unknown location.
In a statement read on state TV, the government said Rodriguez Torres was being sought by the judiciary for plotting to undermine the military's chain of command and disturb the peace.
"The criminal actions planned by this gentleman and his accomplices include armed actions and conspiring against our constitution," said the statement, which demanded Rodriguez Torres' "treason" be met with "severity."
Rodriguez Torres is a former army major general who served alongside Chavez in a failed 1992 coup. For over a year, he has been quietly building a movement to challenge Maduro in presidential elections, but earlier this year was barred from holding office for 12 months on what supporters call trumped-up charges of not presenting a sworn affidavit declaring his assets and income.
In his speech Tuesday, he called for electoral authorities to uphold Venezuela's constitution and provide guarantees that the upcoming presidential election will be free and fair. Several prominent opponents of Maduro's socialist administration have been barred from competing in the May vote while several other have been exiled or jailed.
"Once those conditions are reached we should select one candidate to begin that electoral process to begin transforming the reality we are living today," Rodriguez Torres told the gathering.
With deep ties to the military, traditionally the arbiter of political disputes in Venezuela, Rodriguez Torres has managed to distinguish himself from other former government loyalists on the left even while, until now, evading arrest or prosecution like many of Maduro's conservative opponents.
In an interview last year with The Associated Press, Rodriguez Torres accused Maduro of destroying Venezuela's oil-rich economy, failing to rein in violence by pro-government militias and silencing critics. He said if given the chance to lead he would eliminate foreign currency controls put in place in 2003 and seek financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund, which Chavez railed against.
Despite attempts to present himself as a kinder, gentler Chavista, many in the conservative opposition accuse Rodriguez Torres of violating human rights by arresting dozens of protesters as Maduro's interior minister during a wave of anti-government unrest in 2014.
The statement from Maduro's government announcing Rodriguez Torres' arrest repeated claims that he had been fired as minister for allegedly having ties to U.S. intelligence agencies.
Associated Press writer Fabiola Sanchez reported this story in Caracas and AP writer Joshua Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia.