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President Maduro under fire as deadly protests rock Venezuela

© Photo: AFP

Video by Henry BROWN

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-02-22

Venezuelan security forces and demonstrators faced off in streets blocked by burning barricades in several provincial cities on Thursday as protests escalated against President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government.

At least six people been killed and more than 100 injured since the violence broke out last week, the most serious unrest in the country since Maduro was elected by a narrow margin in April 2013.

The protesters, mostly students, who are calling for Maduro’s resignation, accuse his government of allowing rampant crime, high inflation, product shortages and the alleged repression of opponents.

Thursday’s most serious unrest was in the western Andean states of Tachira and Merida, which have been especially volatile since hardline opposition leaders called supporters onto the streets in early February demanding Maduro’s departure.

In the city of San Cristobal, which some residents are describing as a “war zone,” many businesses remained closed as students and police faced off again. The government says it is taking “special measures” to restore order in Tachira.

“This is not a militarisation,” Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres said on state TV from San Cristobal.

“We are here to work for the great majority of people in Tachira. ... Before we have dialogue, we must have order.” Maduro says he will not let his rivals turn Tachira into “a Benghazi,” referring to the violence-wracked Libyan city where the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi was waged.

‘Don’t give up’

Wednesday night saw one of the worst bouts of violence in the capital Caracas during nearly three weeks of unrest.

Around a square in the wealthier east of the city, security forces fired teargas and bullets, chasing youths who hurled Molotov cocktails and blocked roads with burning piles of trash.

“I declare myself in civil disobedience,” read one banner held up by demonstrators on a city road early on Thursday.

Tensions have escalated since opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, a 42-year-old Harvard-educated economist, turned himself in to police this week. He is being held in Caracas’s Ramo Verde military jail on charges of inciting the violence.

“Change depends on every one of us. Don’t give up!” Lopez’s wife, Lilian Tintori, said on Twitter.

Local TV channels are providing almost no live coverage of the unrest, so Venezuelans are turning to social media to swap information and images, though falsified photos are circulating.

Both sides rolled out competing evidence of the latest violence on Thursday, with ruling Socialist Party governors showing photos and video of charred streets and torched vehicles, while the opposition posted footage of brutal behaviour which they said was by national guard troops.

‘Coup attempt’

Maduro, elected last year to succeed socialist leader Hugo Chavez, says Lopez and “small fascist groups” are in league with the US government and are trying to carry out a coup.

He has been sharply critical of international media reporting, and on Thursday he warned CNN Español it risked being kicked out of the country if it didn’t “rectify” its coverage.

Speaking in Mexico, US President Barack Obama criticised Maduro’s government for arresting protesters and urged it to focus on addressing the “legitimate grievances” of its people.

Venezuela’s main opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, who narrowly lost to Maduro in last year’s presidential election, disagrees with Lopez’s street tactics but backs protesters’ grievances and has condemned the government response.

“What does the government want, a civil war?” Capriles asked at a news conference on Thursday, urging opposition activists to avoid violence.

The opposition is planning marches across the country on Saturday to protest the jailing of Lopez as well as well as the rampant crime, shortages of consumer goods and inflation rate of more than 50 percent that has made life difficult for many in the country of nearly 30 million people.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AP)

Date created : 2014-02-21

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