Ousted Caracas Mayor Flees House Arrest, Arrives in Colombia

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -

Ousted Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma escaped house arrest and fled to Colombia on Friday, an apparent embarrassment for security forces who had been keeping close watch over one of Venezuela’s most prominent opposition leaders.

Colombian immigration authorities said in a statement that Ledezma entered the country legally after crossing the Simon Bolivar bridge separating the two countries.

In his first comments from an airport in the Colombian city of Cucuta, Ledezma described his escape as “movie-like,” requiring him to sneak past more than 20 police checkpoints in the long drive from the capital to the western border.

Holding a Venezuelan flag, he said he would continue fighting to restore Venezuela’s democracy from exile, adding that the decision to flee was his alone and kept a secret even from his family, who have been living outside Venezuela.

“This decision I took consulting only my conscience,” Ledezma told reporters before boarding a private plane for the Colombian capital of Bogota.

As Venezuelans were waking up to the news of Ledezma’s escape, several heavily armed police officers surrounded Ledezma’s residence in Caracas as soon as news of his escape broke.

Ledezma was removed as mayor of Caracas and detained in 2015 on charges of plotting to oust President Nicolas Maduro. After a few months in jail he was released and placed under house arrest due to health issues.

He was one of the leaders of anti-government protests that rocked Venezuela in 2014 and led to the jailing of other prominent opponents, including Leopoldo Lopez, who remains under house arrest.

Maria Corina Machado, another hardline opposition leader close to Ledezma, said the politician decided to leave because he was under threat after he recently broke with other members of the opposition and stridently condemned attempts at initiating a new round of dialogue with Maduro’s government.

“I was sure that Antonio Ledezma wouldn’t allow himself to become a hostage of tyranny,” Machado said in a tweet.

Ledezma’s wife, Mitzy Capriles, said state intelligence agents had broken into the family’s home but quickly discovered that her husband was not there.

Lawmakers from Ledezma’s Alliance for the Brave People political party were among a small group of legislators who this week decided to form their own parliamentary bloc to distinguish themselves from other opposition parties they consider too accommodating of Maduro.

The umbrella Democratic Unity opposition group this week sent representatives to the Dominican Republic to discuss the agenda for talks with Maduro’s government that are slated to begin in two weeks on the Caribbean island under the observation of six foreign governments.

Those talks come as Venezuela approaches hyperinflation and Maduro is struggling to stay current on the country’s foreign debt. This week, several ratings agencies and a finance-industry group said Venezuela had defaulted on its foreign bonds after missing several payments.

Maduro is betting that talks with the opposition will help him get backing for a plan to restructure the country’s foreign debt. Meanwhile, his opponents want guarantees that presidential elections scheduled for next year will be fair and transparent after widespread international condemnation of vote-rigging in recent gubernatorial elections that pro-government candidates swept despite widespread rejection of Maduro.

Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have crossed into Colombia fleeing their nation’s volatile economy and political hostility in recent years, many crossing through the same bridge that Ledezma took. Thousands of others cross through hundreds of “trochas,” unpaved dirt roads along Venezuela’s porous 1,370-mile border with Colombia.

In August, Venezuela’s ousted chief prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Diaz, arrived in Colombia after first fleeing to Aruba. Other opposition leaders and magistrates have also sought refuge in the neighboring Andean nation.