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Venezuela says former U.S. Marine "spy" arrested in alleged terror plot

Caracas, Venezuela — Venezuela's chief prosecutor on Monday said a U.S. citizen recently arrested in the country as a suspected spy has been charged in an alleged terrorist plot to sabotage oil refineries and electrical service in order to stir unrest.

A screengrab from Venezuelan state TV shows weapons allegedly seized during the arrest of a U.S. national identified as Matthew John Heath, who is accused of plotting terror attacks in Venezuela along with three Venezuelan nationals. Venezuelan state TV

The man, alleged to have CIA ties, had help from three Venezuelan conspirators, who were arrested with him last week near a pair of oil refineries on the country's north Caribbean coast, Venezuela's Chief Prosecutor Tarek William Saab said on state television.

The office gave the U.S. suspect's name as Matthew John Heath.

The U.S. Marine Corps confirmed to CBS News' David Martin that a man by that name served in the Corps from 1999 until 2003, but the Marines could not confirm that he was the same man arrested in Venezuela.

Heath was a corporal in the Corps, who was awarded a range of honors during his active duty service, who specialized in communications. The Marines did not provide information on any later roles held by Heath after his departure from the Corps in 2003.

President Nicolás Maduro announced on Friday that an unnamed suspected U.S. spy had been captured, saying he was a Marine and former CIA operative in Iraq.

Heath has been charged with terrorism, trafficking illegal weapons and conspiracy, authorities said.

Venezuelan authorities said cellphones taken from the men when they were arrested last week contained images of suspected targets, including a large bridge in Zulia state, military installations and dilapidated oil refineries in Falcon state. The prosecutor showed pictures of equipment allegedly seized from the group, including a grenade launcher, plastic explosives, a satellite phone and a bag of U.S. dollars.

"Everything here could qualify as a lethal weapon designed to cause harm and to promote assassinations, crimes against the people of Venezuela," said Saab, who also accused the man of planning to open a drug trafficking route through Venezuela.

U.S. authorities have not commented on the case. The Associated Press was unable to make immediate contact with Heath, an attorney or a relative representing him for comment on the accusations.

The arrest surfaced as this nation, once wealthy from oil, has been gripped by a deep gasoline shortage that has sparked mile-long lines to fuel up, even in the capital of Caracas. Venezuela also struggles to provide electricity to residents, especially in Zulia state, once a major hub of the nation's vast oil production.

Amuay-Cardon Oil Refinery Resumes Exports After Strike
A controlled flame burns behind a storage tank in the oil refinery complex of Amuay-Cardon, in an April 4, 2003 file photo in Paraguana, about 350 miles west of Caracas, Venezuela. Kimberly White/Getty

Heath is accused of targeting the Amuay and Cardon refineries — part of the massive Paraguana Refinery Complex on Venezuela's northern Caribbean coast. However, the refineries have ceased producing gasoline, and Venezuela depends on shipments from Iran, despite having the world's largest oil reserves.

He is accused of entering Venezuela illegally, the prosecutor said, adding that he didn't have a passport but rather had a copy of it hidden in one of his shoes. The three Venezuelans accused of conspiring with Heath include a military officer, Saab said.

The investigation also landed the arrest of four other Venezuelans accused of helping him sneak into the country from Colombia, authorities said.

Saab said Heath had worked in Iraq as a communications specialist three months each year from 2006 to 2016 for MVM Inc., a Virginia-based private security contracting company.

MVM provided a statement to the AP saying that Heath is "not currently an employee or contractor" with the firm.

2 Americans charged in plot to overthrow Venezuelan leader 00:19

This arrest follows a failed beach incursion in early May that landed two ex-Green Beret soldiers in a Venezuelan jail for allegedly participating in a failed attempt to overthrow the socialist government.

The two former U.S. special forces soldiers were arrested along with more than 80 rebel Venezuelan fighters who staged a failed beach attack called Operation Gideon aimed at arresting Maduro.

The operation mounted from makeshift training camps in neighboring Colombia left several rebels dead. It was orchestrated by Jordan Goudreau, an American citizen and three-time Bronze Star recipient who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Venezuela captures 2 US mercenaries over maritime raids
ID cards of Airan Berry and Luke Denman, who Venezuela authorities say are linked to an operation denounced by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, are displayed during a meeting with members of the Armed Forces in Caracas, Venezuela on May 4, 2020.  Anadolu Agency

The ex-Green Berets in Goudreau's force — Luke Denman and Airan Berry — have been sentenced to 20 years in prison. Authorities say the two men confessed to being part of the plot.

While the Trump administration denied having anything to do with the bungled May incursion, Washington backs Venezuelan opposition politician Juan Guaidó as the country's legitimate leader in place of Maduro.

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