CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A Venezuelan court has sentenced two former U.S. Special Forces soldiers to 20 years in prison for their part in a failed beach attack aimed at overthrowing President Nicolás Maduro, prosecutors announced.
The former Green Berets, Luke Denman and Airan Berry, admitted to taking part in the May 4 operation orchestrated by a third former U.S. soldier who remains in the United States, Venezuela’s chief prosecutor, Tarek William Saab, announced on Twitter on Friday.
“THEY ADMITTED THEIR RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE FACTS,” Mr. Saab wrote, adding that the case will continue for dozens of other defendants. He did not offer details.
The operation — called “Operation Gideon” — was launched from makeshift training camps in neighboring Colombia and left at least eight rebel soldiers dead while a total of 66 were jailed. A former Green Beret named Jordan Goudreau, who operated a private, Florida-based security firm called Silvercorp USA, claimed responsibility for the failed attack.
Venezuelan prosecutors announced that Mr. Denman and Mr. Berry, both decorated former U.S. service members, were found guilty of conspiracy, trafficking in illegal arms and terrorism.
On Venezuelan state TV, the two men have been widely displayed by officials as proof of their long-held claims that the United States is set on overthrowing Mr. Maduro’s socialist government.
The incident also unleashed claims that Juan Guaidó, the U.S. backed opposition leader, had authorized Mr. Goudreau to carry out the attack, through a signed agreement executed by two of Mr. Guaidó’s former political advisers.
Mr. Guaidó and U.S. officials have denied any role in the attack. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington would use all possible means to win the freedom of Mr. Denman and Mr. Berry.
A day before authorities announced that the two ex-Green Berets were sentenced, Venezuelan authorities opened the trial of six American executives of the Houston-based Citgo company. The six men were arrested over two years ago in Venezuela on corruption charges.
The case had lingered for months until former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson met personally in July with Mr. Maduro in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, to urge they be released so they could return home to the United States.
Mr. Richardson on Saturday said he would also work to free the convicted veterans, who are both natives of Texas.
“Luke Denman and Airan Berry are American citizens and military veterans who deserve our support,” he said. “We will continue our dialogue with the Venezuelans to try to find a way to bring them back home to their families.”
Both cases play out amid hostility between Washington and Caracas. The Trump administration last year threw its support behind Mr. Guaidó, who declared he was Venezuela’s legitimate president, vowing to oust Mr. Maduro.
Mr. Guaidó blames Mr. Maduro for the once wealthy nation’s economic and social collapse, while the socialist leader says Washington is manipulating Mr. Guaidó to steal the nation’s vast oil wealth.