Three die in Venezuela protests

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Caracas (AFP) – Three more people were killed in Venezuela on Monday in renewed violence, raising the death toll in three weeks of massive demonstrations against leftwing President Nicolas Maduro to 24, officials said.

Several others were seriously injured and “between life and death,” said public defender Tarek William Saab.

The latest casualties come on a day anti-Maduro demonstrators blocked major roads in the South American nation.

Two government trucks in eastern Caracas were set alight on a freeway by masked protesters who poured oil on the road. Police nearby did not immediately intervene, AFP journalists saw.

Elsewhere in the capital, riot police fired tear gas at another group of protesters who threw stones at them.

However the majority of demonstrators, who numbered in the thousands, rallied peacefully.

The return to violence in the streets of Venezuela after a weekend lull was certain to further stoke international concern over the country, whose economy is imploding despite vast oil reserves.

Latin American countries and the United States have voiced concern at the unrest.

The population is suffering shortages of food, medicine and basic supplies. Riots and looting have occurred in several places.

The conservative-led opposition says government incompetence is to blame and calls the president a dictator. It wants early elections.

But Maduro, who has the backing of the armed forces, says Venezuela is the victim of a US-led capitalist plot. 

He has stepped up a nationalization drive started by his late Socialist predecessor Hugo Chavez that has swept up plants and assets of foreign companies, including American ones.

Authorities have also curbed the power of congress, which is dominated by opposition lawmakers.

– Deaths in western Venezuela –

The three deaths on Monday happened in western Venezuela.

Saab said one man in the city of Merida “was demonstrating peacefully when he apparently received a gunshot.” He added in a television interview that the killed man was a pro-government demonstrator.

There were five people badly wounded in the city, he added.

The two others killed were in the nearby town of Barinas, a source at the prosecutor’s office told AFP. 

The source did not specify whether they were anti-Maduro protesters or pro-government activists. 

But an opposition party, Justice First, said the two were part of a protest against Maduro when they were targeted by pro-government “paramilitaries.” It said two other people were wounded.

The government has ruled out a presidential election this year, maintaining that Maduro will see out his term into 2018. Elections for regional governors due in December have been postponed.

Maduro said Sunday he wanted the regional elections “now” but did not indicate a possible date for those or local ballots that are due this year.

“I am ready for whatever the electoral authorities say,” he insisted.

– ‘We are hungry’ –

The courts and electoral authorities have fended off efforts to remove him since the opposition took over the legislature in January 2016.

Analysts say street protests are now one of the few levers the opposition has for change.

“We are taking a stand so that Maduro knows he has to go,” said Amalia Duran, a housewife of 41 who joined thousands of protesters under a scorching sun in Caracas. Many dressed in white and waved Venezuela’s red, yellow and blue flag.

“We are hungry because of him,” she said of the president. “I can’t find milk for my 16-month-old baby.”

“I have come because I am tired of this. I went round 20 pharmacies looking for a simple antibiotic,” said Yorwin Ruiz, 26.

“We cannot go on like this. I hope we at least manage to have elections.”

The socialist leader won the 2013 election by a narrow margin over opposition candidate Henrique Capriles. But Maduro’s popularity has since dropped.

Falling oil prices have slashed its revenues, leading to critical shortages and outbreaks of looting.

A recent survey by pollster Venebarometro indicated that seven out of 10 Venezuelans disapprove of Maduro.

Vatican-mediated negotiations between the two sides broke down.

The government and the opposition have traded blame for the deadly violence, with each side accusing the other of trying to mount a “coup.”

“Peaceful protests across the country will continue until Mr Maduro respects the constitution and ends his internal coup,” Capriles tweeted Monday.

“If there is no answer from Maduro’s corrupt drug-trafficking leadership, at the end of the day we will announce further action.”

A Venezuelan opposition activist is backdropped by a burning barricade during a demonstration against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, on April 24, 2017
Copyright AFP Ronaldo SCHEMIDT
Thousands of Venezuelan opposition activists demonstrate against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, on April 24, 2017
Copyright AFP Federico PARRA
A Venezuelan opposition activist holds a placard reading, “Mr. President, Venezuela is Hungry for food not for bullets. No more repression”
Copyright AFP Juan BARRETO
L-R: Mitzy Capriles de Ledezma, wife of the mayor of Caracas, opposition ex-congresswoman Maria Corina Machado and the wife and mother of imprisoned Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, Lilian Tintori and Maria Antonieta de Lopez march
Copyright AFP FEDERICO PARRA
Police forces confront Venezuelan opposition activists demonstrating in Caracas, on April 24, 2017
Copyright AFP Federico PARRA
Venezuelan anti-Maduro protesters block roadways
Copyright AFP Jesus Olarte, Leo Ramírez