Caracas: Four students in Venezuela have partially sewn their lips together to press their demands for funding for public universities as part of a growing hunger strike.
One 18-year-old student, Gabriela Torrijos, stitched the left corner of her mouth together on Friday as she and a group of other students maintained their hunger strike outside the UN Development Program office in Caracas. Three other students have partly sewn their lips in the past several days.
The hunger strike began with five students on February 23 and has grown since. Students say their universities may not be able to keep operating if the government does not provide adequate funding.
University administrators have said that by early April more than two dozen public universities in the country may not have enough funds to keep cafeterias running or purchase supplies.
Government officials dispute those claims, saying the students are being manipulated by President Hugo Chavez`s opponents.
"If they want to walk naked through the street, let them do it. If they want to sew whatever they want to sew, let them sew it, but ... we`re going to keep working for our homeland," Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said during a televised event in southeastern Bolivar state.
Referring to the protest, Maduro said it shows the right-wing in Venezuela "continues with its madness”.
Torrijos, a political science student at the Central University of Venezuela, said she joined the hunger strike four days to demand action by the government in providing needed funding.
Torrijos was in pain after she partially stitched her lips together with her own hands. "After seeing my friends take this action, I did it in solidarity with them," she told The Associated Press.
Another student, 28-year-old Villca Fernandez, had a swollen face three days after he sewed up the edge of his mouth. He was visibly weak from the hunger strike, saying he hadn`t eaten solid food for 30 days and has no intention of stopping until he and others succeed in achieving their demands.
"I`m willing to die for my university," he said. "I`m willing to die for my country."
Gaby Arellano, one of the protest organisers, said there were 55 university students participating in the hunger strike as of Friday in Caracas and elsewhere in the country, though that claim could not be independently confirmed.
Chavez on Tuesday announced plans to increase students` stipends and said the government was willing to review university budgets. Students participating in the hunger strike have dismissed those announcements as inadequate.