CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — In a nation awash with rumors amid a government crisis in which two men have claimed Venezuela's presidency, even the unexpected arrival of a Russian passenger jet can set off a social media frenzy.
The Boeing 777 belonging to Russia's Nordwind Airlines arrived Monday night and could still be seen Wednesday on the tarmac at Maiquetia airport outside the capital, its presence sparking unproven claims that President Nicolas Maduro's administration is looking to whisk what's left of the nation's depleted gold reserves out of the country.
A Nordwind representative confirmed the plane's arrival but wouldn't comment on who chartered the plane, what it is carrying or its itinerary. It is believed to be the first time the aircraft has flown to Venezuela. Flight data shows it normally flies inside Russia and to southeast Asia.
Opposition lawmaker Jose Guerra, a former central bank director, set off the wave of speculation with his claim Wednesday that unnamed sources inside the monetary authority informed him the plane was hired to transport 20 metric tons of gold comprising about 15 percent of the reserves held in Caracas.
"This needs to be taken with utmost seriousness," Guerra said in a speech to lawmakers.
"These reserves don't belong to Calixto Ortega, they belong to Venezuela," he added, referring to the central bank's president, a close ally of Maduro.
The Associated Press was unable to verify the authenticity of Guerra's claim. There was no immediate response from Maduro's government.
But since the outset of the crisis social media has been awash with rumors or inaccurate accusations, everything from reports of military uprisings that never took place to tank movements to allegations that Maduro's security forces were recruiting teenagers.
Russia has led a group of Washington's adversaries who have come to Maduro's defense, accusing the U.S. of calling for a coup after it rushed to recognize Juan Guaido, the head of the opposition-controlled congress, when he declared himself interim president last week. Guaido said Venezuela's constitution gave him the authority to assume the presidency on a temporary basis and call elections, alleging that Maduro took office for a second term that he won in elections widely considered illegitimate.
Russia is a major creditor to Maduro and a supplier of weaponry. State-controlled oil company Rosneft has invested heavily in Venezuela's oil fields.
Associated Press writer Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this report from Moscow