Friday, February 23, 2018
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Venezuelan opposition renews protests against Maduro

New wave of protests seeks to pressure president to resign, but government dismisses rallies as lawless unrest.

Protesters in Venezuela have renewed nationwide anti-government rallies to pressure President Nicolas Maduro to step down, a day after three people were killed in similar demonstrations dubbed by the opposition as the "mother of all marches".

Crowds on Thursday were smaller than the hundreds of thousands of people who flooded the streets of the capital, Caracas, holding rival ralies amid increasing tensions over the oil-rich country's political crisis.

Anti-government demonstrators accuse Maduro of eroding democracy and plunging the economy into chaos. Government supporters, who also took to the streets on Wednesday at the urging of the president, dismiss the opposition marches as violent efforts to overthrow Maduro with the backing of ideological adversaries in the United States.

READ MORE: Venezuela crisis explained from the beginning 

Riot police on Thursday fired tear gas to break up scores of protesters on Caracas's west side who were trying to join a larger march - though there was no immediate repeat of Wednesday's violent clashes.

There was a heavy security presence in the capital and other flashpoint cities, with armoured trucks and riot police guarding the main roads.

"It's time for the armed forces to realise that they're protecting corrupt leaders and not the Venezuelan people," said Jorge Millan, an opposition member of parliament who represents part of the poor hilltop Caracas neighbourhood of 23 de Enero, once a government stronghold.

The current wave of marches, the most sustained protests against Maduro since 2014, has sparked regular clashes in which youths and National Guard troops exchange volleys of rocks and tear gas.

There were also late-night barricades and some looting in Caracas' middle class neighbourhood of El Paraiso on Wednesday night.

Two students and a National Guard sergeant were killed in Wednesday's demonstrations.

The opposition accuses Maduro of letting state forces and gangs of armed thugs violently repress demonstrators. Interior Minister Nestor Reverol said one person had been arrested for the sergeant's death, which he called a pre-meditated "act of fascism."

The political turmoil, coupled with a deepening economic crisis characterised by triple-digit inflation and shortages of food and basic consumer goods, has galvanised the often divided opposition in their efforts to force Maduro from power.

"There is a disparate and polarised opposition, which is not really speaking with one voice," Schweimler said. 

"The only time they really speak with one voice is calling for Maduro to resign - and that is when they are out in the streets in huge numbers."

The renewed wave of protests was sparked by a Supreme Court move in March to assume the powers of the opposition-led Congress, a move that was reversed a few days later.

The rallies were further fuelled when the government barred the opposition's best-known leader, two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, from running for office for 15 years.

"This is the moment," said Raquel Belfort, a 42-year-old protester in wealthier eastern Caracas on Thursday, sporting a hat in the yellow, blue and red colors of the Venezuelan flag.

"People are sick of this ... we've touched rock bottom. I think if we take to the streets every day we'll end this government."

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Thursday urged all sides in Venezuela to take steps to ease tensions.

"We call for concrete gestures from all parties to reduce polarization and create the necessary conditions to address the country's challenges," said Guterres in a statement.

The European Union added to the condemnation, calling the deaths of protesters "highly regrettable" and urging all sides to "de-escalate."

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