Caracas (AFP) – New clashes erupted Thursday between Venezuelan riot police and President Nicolas Maduro’s opponents, inflaming the tension after a day of deadly unrest in the beleaguered oil-rich nation.
Police backed by armored trucks fired tear gas to break up a large march as it reached a vital freeway in Caracas, then edged back slightly as masked protesters pelted them with stones.
Demonstrators vowed not to flinch in their campaign to oust Maduro, despite three weeks of protest violence that has left eight people dead, including three on Wednesday.
“Sure we’re tired, but we’ve got to stand strong. I’m ready to take to the streets every day if I have to,” said 22-year-old student protester Aquiles Aldazoro.
Senior opposition leader Henrique Capriles vowed there would be “no surrender.”
“It is our duty to defend the constitution,” he said.
Protesters blame Maduro — the heir of the leftist “Bolivarian revolution” launched by the late Hugo Chavez in 1999 — for an economic crisis marked by severe shortages of food, medicine and basic goods.
Pressure on Maduro has been mounting since 2014, as falling prices for Venezuela’s crucial oil exports have sent the once-booming economy into a tailspin.
The crisis has escalated since March 30, when Venezuela’s Supreme Court moved to seize the powers of the legislature, the only lever of state authority not controlled by Maduro and his allies.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters took part in Wednesday’s marches, which erupted into clashes with security forces and armed groups of government supporters.
A 17-year-old boy and a 23-year-old woman died after they were shot in the head, and Maduro’s camp said a soldier outside Caracas was also killed.
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 soldier’s death, which he called a pre-meditated “act of fascism.”
– Looters cart off food –
Numerous businesses and universities remained closed — some in tacit support of the protests, others for fear of a repeat of the previous day’s violence.
Looting erupted amid the chaos Wednesday. In the Paradise neighborhood in western Caracas, looters carted off food and beer from a series of ransacked businesses, residents said.
In poor neighborhoods traditionally loyal to Maduro, some protesters have cited hunger as their reason for joining calls for his ouster.
The escalation of Venezuela’s political crisis since late March has galvanized the often divided opposition in its efforts to force Maduro from power.
The president, in turn, has urged his supporters, the military and civilian militias to defend the “revolution.”
International concern meanwhile continues to mount.
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,” he said in a statement.
The European Union added to the condemnation, calling the deaths of protesters “highly regrettable” and urging all sides to “de-escalate.”
– ‘Unconditional loyalty’ –
The 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.
The president accuses the opposition of inciting a “coup” backed by the United States.
According to a survey by pollster Venebarometro, seven in 10 Venezuelans disapprove of Maduro, whose term does not end until 2019.
“I want to have elections soon… to seek a peaceful path so the 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.