President Hugo Chavez accused his adversaries on Sunday of sabotaging Venezuela's electricity grid as part of a broader plan aimed at bringing about the system's collapse - and his downfall.
Chavez said authorities must be "on the alert" and apprehend anyone who cuts electricity cables connected to the grid. Such sabotage has caused power failures in some regions and exacerbated the effects of severe energy shortages, he said.
"Be on the lookout! Patrols must be carried out to capture the saboteurs because those responsible must be caught and put in prison," Chavez said during his weekly television and radio program, "Hello President."
Referring to his government's adversaries, he said: "They think that's how they're going to topple Chavez, and that's what they're seeking, but if there's an electricity collapse, it won't be Chavez who is going to fall. Prepare yourselves, bourgeois folks, because it will be you who will fall."
The accusations were vague and Chavez provided no evidence supporting them. Energy Minister Ali Rodriguez echoed the allegations.
"I have no doubt that many of the failures that are occurring are the product of sabotage. We are investigating," Rodriguez said.
Opposition leaders scoffed at the president's claim, saying Chavez is trying to shed the blame for power shortages that critics say his government caused by failing to invest enough in electricity production over the last decade.
"The president is a great manipulator and he uses lies to fool the people," Juan Jose Molina, an opposition politician, said in a telephone interview.
He noted more than a dozen projects to build thermoelectric plants have been delayed.
"It's Chavez's own incompetence that's going to bring him down," Molina said. "We want to get him out (of office) with votes."
Chavez declared an energy emergency earlier this month, announcing that his socialist government will punish businesses and industries that use what the government considers excessive amounts of electricity. He promised discounts to those that cut consumption.
Under the plan, large businesses and factories must cut electricity consumption 20 percent or face sanctions, including hefty surcharges on electricity bills. The energy-saving initiative also targets ordinary Venezuelans who use more than 500 kilowatt-hours of electricity a month - an estimated 24 percent of all residential consumers, according to Chavez.
The plan is aimed at easing energy shortages that Chavez blames on a months-long drought. The lack of rain has caused water levels to drop to critical lows behind the Guri Dam, which supplies roughly 70 percent of Venezuela's electricity.