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Caracas mayor removed from his office in mysterious raid

Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma talks during a hearing at the Brazilian Senate Foreign Relations Commission at the National Congress in Brasilia October 27, 2009.

REUTERS / Roberto Jayme

CARACAS, Venezuela - National police in camouflage uniforms smashed into the office of Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma on Thursday and carried the opposition figure away. President Nicolas Maduro announced that the mayor would be punished for all his efforts to disturb the peace.

Reports of the arrest set off protests around the city, where people spontaneously banged pots from their windows or tapped rhythms on their car horns amid rush hour traffic. As night fell, hundreds gathered in front of the headquarters of the intelligence service police to vent their anger.

In a speech Thursday night, Maduro said the mayor had been "captured" and would face justice.

"He'll be held accountable for all his crimes," Maduro said in comments that TV and radio stations across the country were required to carry.

Last week, Maduro named Ledezma among a laundry list of government critics and Western powers he accused of plotting a coup to bring down the South American country's socialist government, one of more than a dozen such denunciations Maduro has made since taking power in 2013. Ledezma mocked the accusation in multiple interviews, saying the real destabilizing force in Venezuela was the government's corruption.

Tensions have been running high in Venezuela this week, with the one-year anniversary of the start weeks of anti-government street protests that choked the country with tear gas and smoke from flaming barricades and resulted in more than 40 deaths. National police arrested several other mayors and former mayors during last year's unrest, including Leopoldo Lopez, who is considered by human rights groups as Latin America's most high-profile political prisoner.

Human Rights Watch called for Ledezma's immediate release, while the U.S. State Department issued a statement saying Venezuela's accusations that the "United States is involved in coup plotting and destabilization are baseless and false."

Ledezma has been a thorn in the side of the ruling party since he won the mayorship in 2008, beating out a member of the socialist party led by the late President Hugo Chavez.

The government subsequently transferred nearly all of Ledezma's powers, including control of police and schools, to a newly created government entity. Ledezma responded with a hunger strike that drew international attention and cemented his status as symbol for what the opposition calls the government's efforts to marginalize elected officials who do not fall in line.

His arrest was captured on surveillance video, clips of which rocketed around social media. A throng of men in black and gray camouflage, wearing bulletproof vests, can be seen forcefully hustling the 59 year-old politician from his building.

A member of Ledezma's security team, who was not authorized to give his name, said 10 men wearing the uniform of Venezuela's national intelligence service entered the building carrying guns and a hatchet. They used their weapons to break the door to Ledezma's office, and then a dozen other men, wearing masks, came in and hit the mayor before dragging him away, he said.

Members of the mayor's team gave statements Thursday night amid the shattered glass of the office's front door. The rest of the office looked untouched.

Hector Urgelles, a spokesman for Ledezma's party, the Fearless People's Alliance, told The Associated Press that the uniformed men were presumably members of the intelligence service, but did not identify themselves or give a reason for the arrest.

Assemblyman Ismael Garcia wrote on Twitter that Ledezma was carried off "like a dog."