Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez (pictured) surrendered to authorities at a rally in Caracas Tuesday as his followers gathered for a fresh round of anti-government protests in a plaza surrounded by anti-riot troops.
President Nicolas Maduro last week ordered Lopez's arrest on charges of homicide and inciting violence after street clashes in the capital left three dead.
The surrender was a dramatic move following two weeks of protests in the country, spearheaded by students who are angry over rampant crime, deteriorating living conditions and the arrests of demonstrators.
The government banned Tuesday's opposition march after Lopez said he would use it to surrender. Defying the ban, thousands of Lopez's supporters turned out dressed in white at the Plaza Brion after he called for the march in a video message on Sunday.
Lopez, also in white, suddenly emerged in the crowd, climbing a statue of Cuban independence hero Jose Marti with a Venezuelan flag. After delivering a brief message to his cheering supporters, he surrendered to the National Guard.
"I present myself before an unjust justice, before a corrupt justice," said the 42-year-old Harvard-educated economist.
"If my incarceration serves to wake up a people ... my infamous incarceration will have been worth it," he said to an explosion of cheers from the crowd.
He calmly walked under escort to a National Guard vehicle as his supporters pressed in around the vehicle, blocking its path.
Shouts of "Freedom, Freedom!" and "It's going to fall, it's going to fall; this corrupt government is going to fall" rose from the crowd.
Lopez himself got on the loudspeaker from within the vehicle to appeal for calm.
Three rings of national police – backed by a second line of National Guard anti-riot troops with light armoured vehicles – were positioned around the plaza.
The government summoned its followers to rallies of its own in an area of downtown Caracas where the opposition march was to end, raising the risk of a violent confrontation with rival protesters.
'The country is in chaos'
Some opposition protesters carried signs that read: "24,763 violent deaths in 2013. We are more than a statistic."
"We are expressing the frustration we feel. The country is in chaos, there are no supplies in the hospitals, we are sick of the insecurity. I want a Venezuela of progress," said Satle Oviedo, a 27-year-old hospital worker.
Under the slogan "The Exit", Lopez and other opposition leaders have pushed for anti-government street protests to force what they call a "constitutional change".
There is no provision for recall elections until April 2016, and Maduro, who was elected in April 2013, has said he will not resign.
The confrontational approach has aroused misgivings within the opposition coalition, which was formed in 2012 to defeat the late Hugo Chavez.
But Henrique Capriles, the two-time opposition presidential candidate and governor of the state of Miranda, said he would take part in Tuesday's march even though he does not think the time is ripe to try to force the government from power.
"We may have differences but we feel solidarity," Capriles said.
The tensions generated by the protests have spilled into the international arena as well.
On Sunday, Maduro ordered the expulsion of three US diplomats, accusing them of meeting with student leaders under the guise of offering them visas.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, confirming the expulsion orders, said Tuesday the United States was considering what actions it will take.
"We have seen many times that the Venezuelan government tries to distract from its own actions by blaming the United States or other members of the international community for events inside Venezuela," she said.
"These efforts reflect a lack of seriousness on the part of the Venezuelan government to deal with the grave situation it faces," she said.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
Date created : 2014-02-18