Venezuelans take to streets for rival mass rallies

Last Updated: Sunday, February 23, 2014 - 01:35

Tens of thousands of supporters and opponents of Venezuela`s government took to the streets of Caracas Saturday amid fears of more violence in the bitterly divided country.

The competing mass rallies in the capital -- the second in days -- follow weeks of often bloody marches that have claimed at least nine lives and injured 140 others.

Heeding the call of opposition leader Henrique Capriles, governor of Miranda state and former presidential candidate, anti-government protesters massed near a shopping mall in the Caracas neighborhood of Sucre.

They were expected to demonstrate both in the capital and country-wide against armed groups accused of intimidating and even attacking demonstrators.

"The state should stop these paramilitary groups," said the head of the main opposition coalition, Ramon Guillermo Aveledo.

"It is unacceptable that there are armed groups that are out of control," he told AFP.

Meanwhile, pro-government supporters, mostly women, gathered in the center of the capital.

Leftist President Nicolas Maduro had announced that "millions of women would come out in all of the country`s cities" to march "against fascism."

Security was tight in Caracas Saturday. While the rival camps were spilling onto the streets in different parts of the capital, it was feared clashes could erupt if they collided at any point.Early Saturday, Maduro said remarks by US Secretary of State John Kerry on the unrest gave violent groups a "green light" to carry out attacks.

In a tweet, Maduro also slammed the top US diplomat`s remarks late Friday as "arrogant" and "insolent."

"John Kerry threatens Venezuela with more violence, with his statements gives the green light to violent groups to attack our people," Maduro wrote.

Maduro, who denies any links to the armed groups, says the protests are part of a "coup d`etat in development" instigated by Washington and conservative ex-Colombian president Alvaro Uribe.

Kerry had condemned Venezuela`s "unacceptable" use of force against anti-government protesters, and declined to respond to a call from Caracas for bilateral talks.

"The government`s use of force and judicial intimidation against citizens and political figures, who are exercising a legitimate right to protest, is unacceptable and will only increase the likelihood of violence," he said in a statement.

Maduro`s testy response came a day after he challenged President Barack Obama to meet him for talks.

"I call a dialogue with you, President Obama... between the patriotic and revolutionary Venezuela and the United States and its government," he told a news conference with foreign reporters on Friday.

"Accept the challenge and we will start a high-level dialogue and put the truth on the table."

Kerry, however, made no mention of the offer in his comments.

Caracas and Washington have not exchanged ambassadors since their respective envoys were withdrawn in 2010. Venezuela has expelled eight US diplomats over the past year, including three on February 16.

While oil-rich Venezuela`s main customer for its key export is the United States, its relations with Washington, long strained under late leftist icon Chavez, have worsened under Maduro.The protests -- which began on February 2 -- are seen as the biggest test to Maduro since he succeeded Chavez last year.

They kicked off in the western city of San Cristobal led by students angry over the soaring crime rate. However, they quickly spread to Caracas and other major cities, and have intensified over the past two weeks.

They have also been accompanied by violence and attempts to intimidate protesters.

In the western state of Tachira, student leader Gaby Arellano alleged that groups on motorbikes fired on people protesting by banging on pots at their windows.

In Caracas, AFP journalists have in recent days also seen men on pick-up trucks escorted by motorbikes intimidating protesters.

Venezuela has the world`s largest proven oil reserves, but under Maduro and Chavez the economy has tailspinned, street crime is out of control, and corruption is widespread.

Maduro`s government warned it would cut off gasoline supplies to restless areas.

Capriles, who lost last year`s presidential election to Maduro by a razor-thin margin, is again in the limelight following the Tuesday arrest of another opposition leader, 42-year-old Leopoldo Lopez.

One of the leading organizers of the recent protests against the government, he is being held on charges of instigating violence, property damage and criminal association.

AFP

First Published: Sunday, February 23, 2014 - 01:35

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