The United States on Tuesday denied involvement and alleged propaganda by leftist-led Venezuela after two Americans were said to have been arrested following a mysterious, deadly sea invasion.
President Nicolas Maduro, whom the United States has been unsuccessfully trying to topple for more than a year, appeared on state television Monday with the US passports of a pair he said belonged to US security forces.
While the imagery was straight from the CIA's disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, President Donald Trump's administration scoffed at involvement in such an apparently clumsy operation.
"It has nothing to do with our government," Trump told reporters, remarks echoed shortly afterward by Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
A State Department spokesperson, expanding on their denials, accused Maduro of cooking up a "melodrama," possibly with the help of Cuban intelligence, in hopes of distracting from problems inside crisis-hit Venezuela.
"There is a major disinformation campaign underway by the Maduro regime, making it difficult to separate facts from propaganda," the spokesperson said.
"The record of falsehoods and manipulation by Maduro and his accomplices, as well as their highly questionable representation of the details, argues that nothing should be taken at face value when we see the distorting of facts."
Linking mercenaries to Trump
Maduro tied the alleged plot to Juan Guaido -- the opposition leader considered interim president by the United States and some 60 other countries -- and President Ivan Duque, the right-leaning president of neighboring Colombia.
The passports shown by Maduro identified the arrested Americans as Luke Denman, 34, and Airan Berry, 41.
The State Department, which routinely demands the release of Americans arrested overseas, said only that it was looking into their activities.
It said it was also seeking to learn more about Canadian-born Jordan Goudreau, a former US special forces soldier who founded a Florida-based private security company, Silvercorp USA, and has openly said the firm is working to oust Maduro.
Reacting to Trump's denial, Venezuela's information minister Jorge Rodriguez showed a photograph of Goudreau next to Trump.
He said the photograph was taken on October 18, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina, and had appeared on Goudreau's Instagram account. AFP could not locate the picture when looking through the account, @silvercorpusa.
Venezuelan Attorney General Tarek William Saab earlier shared on social media a video in which Goudreau said that an operation against Maduro involving hired mercenaries was underway.
Saab also showed a contract that said Silvercorp USA had a $212 million agreement with Guaido using funds "stolen" from state oil company PDVSA -- whose US subsidiary, Citgo, was put under the opposition leader's control.
Guaido's press team released a statement denying the accusations and insisting it had no agreements with private security firms.
Years of intrigue
It was unclear when and where the Americans were arrested.
A day before news of the Americans' arrest, Venezuelan authorities said they had foiled an attempted landing of mercenaries on a beach near the capital Caracas.
A top official, Diosdado Cabello, said eight people were killed and two arrested.
Maduro said another 13 people were arrested on Monday, including the son of a prominent imprisoned general.
The intrigue comes almost a year to the date after Guaido led a failed uprising aimed at taking power, with some Venezuelans taking to the streets but the military staying loyal to Maduro.
The United States has a long history of intervening in Venezuela, whose leftist leaders are quick to allege US plots.
In 2002, Maduro's predecessor Hugo Chavez was briefly removed from office in a military coup. Declassified documents later showed that then-US president George W. Bush knew of the coup plot, although he did not necessarily back it.
After Guaido's failed insurrection, US officials said they had been encouraging top Venezuelans to turn on Maduro.
Millions have fled Venezuela's battered economy, in which basic necessities and services have grown scarce.
The crisis shows no signs of abating, with a recent prison riot leaving at least 47 people dead.
The United States has slapped sanctions on Venezuela's oil exports and on Maduro and other top officials, but they still enjoy support from Russia and China.