Venezuela protest toll rises after night of violence

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Caracas (AFP) – Venezuela was rocked by a night of fresh violence during anti-government protests that have now claimed nine lives in three weeks, after an official said Friday that another man had been fatally shot.

Riot police firing tear gas fought running battles overnight in the west and south of Caracas with protesters demanding the ouster of President Nicolas Maduro.

A man was shot and killed during one protest, said the mayor of Sucre, one of the capital’s 22 districts.

“With much pain, I report the death by gunshot of Melvin Guaitan, humble neighborhood worker of Sucre municipality,” Mayor Carlos Ocariz wrote on Twitter.

“We demand that the culprits be investigated and punished,” added Ocariz, a Maduro opponent.

In the El Valle neighborhood, protesters throwing Molotov cocktails managed to set fire to one of the armored police trucks firing tear gas at them, lighting up the night sky.

Fifty-four children were evacuated from a hospital in the neighborhood.

There were conflicting explanations why.

The government said “armed gangs hired by the opposition” had attacked the hospital. The opposition rejected the allegation, saying the children had to be evacuated because of tear gas fired by Maduro’s “dictatorship.”

The two sides looked set to spend Friday regrouping after massive protests Wednesday and Thursday that also erupted into unrest in the flashpoint western city of San Cristobal and several other cities.

The opposition has called new protests for Saturday and Monday.

On Saturday, they plan to march in silence to the Catholic Church’s episcopal seats nationwide. Monday they plan to erect roadblocks to grind the country to a halt.

– Maduro a ‘mythomaniac’: Capriles –

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 seeking to oust him are part of a US-backed coup plot. 

On Thursday, Maduro said the opposition was ready to begin dialogue, but his opponents denied the claim, saying the only way forward is to call elections.

Senior opposition leader Henrique Capriles slammed Maduro as a “dictator” and “mythomaniac.”

“No one believes him, however, about dialogue, which the Venezuelans will do with their VOTE!” he wrote on Twitter.

– Accusations of repression –

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 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.

Hundreds of thousands took part in Wednesday’s marches, in which a 17-year-old teenager and a 23-year-old woman died after being shot in the head by masked gunmen. Maduro’s camp said a soldier was also killed.

The opposition has repeatedly accused the government of sending gangs of armed thugs to attack them, and the security forces of repressing peaceful protesters.

Looting also erupted Wednesday and Thursday, with businesses ransacked in western Caracas and people carting off food and beer, residents said.

The escalation of Venezuela’s political crisis 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.”

The opposition is urging the military — a pillar of Maduro’s power — to abandon him.

But Defense Minister General Vladimir Padrino Lopez has pledged the army’s “unconditional loyalty.”

Figures published by pollster Venebarometro show seven in 10 Venezuelans disapprove of Maduro, whose term does not end until 2019.

A demonstrator clashes with the riot police during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas on April 20, 2017
Copyright AFP Juan BARRETO
Venezuela political unrest
Copyright AFP Gal ROMA
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles (C) demonstrates against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas on April 20, 2017
Copyright AFP Ronaldo SCHEMIDT
Reactions to Venezuela protests
Copyright AFP Anella RETA, Gustavo IZUS, Vincent LEFAI, Kun TIAN
An economic crisis marked by severe shortages has left some Venezuelans scavenging for food, as seen here in Caracas on February 22, 2017
Copyright AFP/File Federico PARRA
Venezuelan policeme take positions during an opposition protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas on April 20, 2017
Copyright AFP RONALDO SCHEMIDT