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Protesting pensioners scuffle with police in Venezuela

© AFP / by Esteban ROJAS | Opposition activists protest against the government in Caracas on May 12, 2017

CARACAS (AFP) - 

Elderly protesters braved pepper spray in scuffles with riot police on Friday as they marched in the latest anti-government protests in Venezuela.

With wheelchairs and walking sticks or on their feet shouting and waving their fists, some 2,000 demonstrators challenged police who blocked their way in central Caracas and fired pepper spray to deter them.

"We do not want a dictatorship, we want to grow old with dignity, medicine, food and freedom," said Lourdes Parra, 77, wrapped in a red, yellow and blue Venezuelan flag.

Defying calls for early elections, President Nicolas Maduro also rallied elderly supporters, who yelled slogans in support of him and his late predecessor Hugo Chavez.

"With Chavez and Maduro, the grandparents are safe," they yelled in a crowd in front of the presidential palace.

- Infant deaths -

The demo drew attention to the suffering of Venezuelans, particularly the elderly, in an economic crisis that has caused shortages of food and medicine in the oil-rich country.

Carlos Rivas, 67, stood in the front line of the demo with empty medicine boxes.

"I have no medication and my pension doesn't buy me anything," he told AFP.

The health ministry on Wednesday released data showing deaths of infants under the age of one soared by 30 percent in 2016 and deaths of women linked to childbirth by 65 percent.

Cases of malaria also rose by 76 percent to more than 240,000, even though the disease was said to have been eradicated in Venezuela.

The next day the government fired minister Antonieta Caporale, the official journal said.

Wednesday's data referred to 2016, but Caporale took over as health minister only in January this year.

- Hospital shortages -

Hospitals and protesters are complaining of severe shortages of medical supplies from an economic crisis that has fueled opposition calls for early elections.

Elected in 2013, Maduro is resisting pressure for an early vote, calling the crisis a US-backed conspiracy.

His opponents have branded him a dictator.

A collapse in prices for Venezuela's crucial oil exports has left the country short of cash to import medicine and basic goods.

The Venezuelan Medical Federation says hospitals have only three percent of the medicines and supplies they need to operate normally.

- Deadly unrest -

Deadly unrest broke out on April 1. Security forces have fired tear gas and water cannons at protesters who have hurled stones, petrol bombs and excrement.

The government and opposition have accused each other of sending armed groups to stir up violence in the protests.

The death toll from the unrest hit 38 on Wednesday, when a 27-year-old man was shot dead in a protest in Caracas, the government said.

- President alleges 'coup' -

Maduro has accused the opposition of mounting an "armed insurgency" and a "coup."

"Nothing and no one will hold us back. We will succeed in neutralizing this ambush," he vowed late Thursday, referring to the protests.

"Venezuela demands that the rioting and the coup d'etat stop."

The opposition called for protesters across the country to come out in processions of vehicles on Saturday.

by Esteban ROJAS

© 2017 AFP