Boy, woman killed in Venezuela mass protests

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Caracas (AFP) – A 17-year-old boy and a woman died after being shot Wednesday during massive protests against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, bringing to seven the number killed this month in a mounting political crisis.

As the latest clashes broke out in the capital with riot police firing tear gas to push back stone-throwing demonstrators, an unidentified man on a motorcycle shot the boy in the head, witnesses said.

Thousands of protesters clashed with  riot police deployed to contain what the opposition vowed would be the “mother of all protests.”

The opposition has accused Maduro of letting state forces and gangs of armed thugs violently repress demonstrators as he resists opposition pressure for him to quit.

The 17-year-old was shot by gunmen who also threw tear gas canisters into a crowd of protesters, Amadeo Leiva, head of the Clinicas Caracas Hospital which treated him, told AFP.

A 23-year-old woman, Paola Ramirez, died after being shot in the head in the western city of San Cristobal, the state prosecution service said later in a statement.

Non-government rights group Provea said the woman died “in the context of the demonstrations.”

Prosecutors said they were investigating both killings.

Authorities had already reported five other people killed, including a boy of 13, in protests around the country earlier this month.

– Turning point? –

Moves by Maduro to tighten his grip on power have escalated the country’s political and economic crisis.

Pressure on the leftist leader has been mounting since 2014, as falling prices for Venezuela’s crucial oil exports have aggravated an economic crisis, creating severe shortages of food and medicine in the state-led economy.

The crisis escalated on March 30, when the Supreme Court tried to take over the powers of the National Assembly, the only lever of government Maduro and his allies do not control.

The court partly backtracked after an international outcry, but the tension only increased when authorities slapped a political ban on opposition leader Henrique Capriles on April 7.

Those events have galvanized the often divided opposition in its efforts to force Maduro from power.

“We have to end this dictatorship. We’re fed up. We want elections to get Maduro out, because he’s destroyed this country,” said protester Ingrid Chacon, a 54-year-old secretary.

The president in turn has urged his supporters, the military and civilian militias to defend the socialist “Bolivarian revolution” launched by his predecessor Hugo Chavez in 1999.

“The hour of combat has arrived,” Maduro said this week after ordering the military to mobilize in the face of the protests.

– US concern –

The center-right opposition has called for the military — a pillar of Maduro’s power — to abandon him.

But the defense minister, General Vladimir Padrino Lopez, has pledged the army’s “unconditional loyalty” to Maduro, who has accused the opposition of inciting a “coup” backed by the United States.

In Washington on Wednesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said America is “concerned that the government of Maduro is violating its own constitution and not allowing the opposition to have their voices heard.”

– Election talk –

According to a survey by pollster Venebarometro, seven in 10 Venezuelans disapprove of Maduro, whose term does not end until 2019.

Maduro said Wednesday he was willing to face his opponents at the ballot box.

“I want to have elections soon… to seek a peaceful path so the Bolivian revolution can put the conspirators, murderers and interventionist right-wingers in their place,” he told a rally of supporters in central Caracas.

Regional elections due in December were indefinitely postponed and there is still no date for local polls due this year. The next presidential election is due in December 2018.

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Marchers in Caracas were forced back by lines of soldiers and police deployed to contain what the opposition vowed would be the “mother of all protests”
Copyright AFP JUAN BARRETO
Riot police had deployed in force ahead of Wednesday’s mass demonstrations in Caracas
Copyright AFP JUAN BARRETO
Caracas has been rocked by weeks of violent protests since President Nicolas Maduro moved to tighten his grip on power, escalating the country’s political and economic crisis
Copyright AFP RONALDO SCHEMIDT
Thousands of opposition protesters tried to march on central Caracas, a pro-government bastion where supporters of President Nicolas Maduro had massed for a counter-demonstration
Copyright AFP Carlos Becerra
Main players in the Venezuela crisis
Copyright AFP Anella RETA, Gustavo IZUS
Venezuela: Clashes erupt at ‘mother of all protests’
Copyright AFP Leo Ramírez.-, Jesus Olarte