Supporters of former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez on Thursday hurled rocks and bottles in an attack on student protesters who were marching against perceived bias by Venezuela’s electoral council.
At least 10 students were reported injured in the violence that raised tensions in a country already sharply divided ahead of next month’s presidential election.
Hundreds of students had gathered at a central plaza in the morning and were making their way to the electoral council headquarters in downtown Caracas when they came upon a police barricade.
About 100 Chavez supporters had gathered behind the barricade in the middle of broad Avenida Universidad and began throwing rocks and bottles at the approaching students. A few students lobbed the objects back, setting off a fierce volley between the two sides. At one point, several Chavez supporters pulled a student to the ground and repeatedly kicked him.
National police fired tear gas and scattered most of the students, but about 100 remained behind, left vulnerable to splinter groups of Chavez supporters who attacked from side streets. Police shooting plastic bullets ultimately repelled the attackers.
“The government supporters have ambushed us,” student leader Vilcar Fernandez said.
It was unclear how many people in total had been injured, and police did not release an estimate.
At one point, about 100 students were trapped by Chavistas who had blocked all the surrounding streets, preventing them from leaving. Many of the attackers wore T-shirts bearing the image of the late president and were chanting pro-Chavez slogans.
Police later escorted the students out of the area.
“It wasn’t our intention to confront or provoke violent acts, but the violence appeared because of minuscule groups that were sent to sabotage a legitimate protest,” student leader Gaby Arellano said.
She added that none of the students were seriously injured.
The election council sits in a neighborhood claimed by Chavez supporters, who have attacked anti-government demonstrations there in the past.
The protesters were demanding the electoral council eliminate requirements that voters have their fingerprints recorded before voting. The students also called on the council to stop Venezuelan acting president Nicolas Maduro from seizing TV and radio airwaves to promote his candidacy.
Demonstrators further demanded the resignation of Venezuelan Defense Minister Diego Molero, who has publicly supported Maduro. The constitution forbids the military from taking sides in politics, although soldiers are permitted to vote.
Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles has strongly criticized the electoral council for failing to stop perceived government bias for Maduro ahead of the April 14 vote.