Caracas (AFP) – Venezuela braced for new marches Saturday against President Nicolas Maduro, after the death toll climbed to 20 in three weeks of violence at protests demanding the leftist leader’s ouster.
The opposition called for protesters to march in silence to the Catholic Church’s episcopal seats nationwide in a show of condemnation of Maduro’s government.
It will be a test of the authorities’ tolerance for peaceful protests, after days of running battles pitting riot police and pro-government vigilantes against protesters hurling stones and Molotov cocktails.
The last protests, on Thursday, descended into a night of riots and looting that left 12 people dead in Caracas.
After Saturday’s show of silent defiance, the center-right opposition plans to return to a more confrontational strategy on Monday, when it is calling for Venezuelans to block roads in a bid to grind the country to a halt.
The two sides blame each other for the unrest.
The government accuses the opposition of hiring armed agitators to sow violence, while the opposition says it is the government using hired thugs and ordering the police and army to repress peaceful protests.
Vice President Tareck El Aissami accused the opposition of sponsoring a “spiral of terrorism” to trigger a coup.
Senior opposition leader Henrique Capriles fired back that the government’s “savage repression” was causing the violence.
– Fourth week on edge –
Protesters blame Maduro — 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.
Maduro says the protests against him are part of a US-backed coup plot.
Pressure on the socialist president 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 escalated on March 30, when the Supreme Court moved to seize the powers of the legislature, the only lever of state authority not controlled by Maduro and his allies.
The court partly backtracked after an international outcry. But tension only increased when the authorities slapped a political ban on Capriles on April 7.
According to pollster Venebarometro, seven in 10 Venezuelans disapprove of Maduro, whose term does not end until 2019.
The opposition is demanding elections to exit the crisis.
– ‘Like a war’ –
Residents described terrifying scenes Thursday night and early Friday in the Caracas neighborhoods hit by riots and looting.
“It was like a war,” said Carlos Yanez, a resident of the southwestern district of El Valle.
“The police were firing tear gas, armed civilians were shooting guns at buildings.”
Eleven people were killed in the neighborhood, according to officials.
Eight were reportedly electrocuted while trying to loot a bakery amid the chaos. The rest were shot.
Videos shot by El Valle residents showed people throwing bottles and other objects out their windows at the gunmen in the streets below, shouting “Murderers!”
As residents and workers cleaned up the destruction Friday, groups of people, including children, scavenged for food amid the wreckage.
A man was also shot dead in protests in the eastern neighborhood of Petare, the local mayor said. Prosecutors said they had opened an investigation.
In recent days, unrest has erupted in the flashpoint western city of San Cristobal and several other cities.