The Venezuelan government ordered paratroopers on Thursday to a border city where growing student protests began over two weeks ago, with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro angrily rejecting US calls for dialogue.
The nationwide demonstrations, led by students and the opposition, have left at least four people dead and dozens hurt in the biggest challenge to Maduro since he took power from the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez last year.
There have been near-daily protests and rallies, some of them violent, in the capital, Caracas, and other cities, over what Maduro’s critics say are deteriorating economic conditions, rampant street crime, corruption and bleak job prospects.
Maduro’s leftist government — which is sitting on the world’s largest proven oil reserves — rushed a battalion of paratroopers to the city of San Cristobal, birthplace of the demonstrations that began on Feb. 4.
The military response came in response to claims from the government that Colombians were crossing the border there “to carry out paramilitary missions” in Venezuela.
Maduro meanwhile threatened to yank CNN from the air waves over what he called the US broadcaster’s “propaganda war.”
He shot back at US President Barack Obama, who has urged Venezuela to release detained protesters and address the “legitimate grievances” of its people.
Maduro’s government said it “emphatically repudiates” Obama’s remarks, accusing the US president of “a new and crude interference in the internal affairs of our country.”
On Sunday, Maduro ordered the expulsion of three US diplomats, accusing them of meeting student leaders to conspire under the guise of offering them visas. Washington denies the allegations.
Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who has kept a low profile during the protests, challenged Maduro to prove his claims that the demonstrations were part of a conspiracy to overthrow his government.
Prominent opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who has helped spearhead the protests, is being held at a military jail where his lawyers say he could remain for up to 45 days awaiting trial.
Lopez, a 42-year-old Harvard-educated economist, has been charged with instigating violence, property damage and criminal association — but not homicide, as had been threatened.
Student protest leaders called on Thursday for a march for peace, urging “Venezuelan civil society to respond to the violence with white flowers.”
The students convened a rally, with flowers, in Las Mercedes, an upscale Caracas neighborhood of embassies, trendy restaurants and luxury condominiums.
However, their plea fell on deaf ears, with yet more disturbances in other parts of the capital.
Demonstrators burned tires and garbage in eastern Caracas, but dispersed later without incident — a marked change from the clashes with police of previous days.
The archbishop of Caracas appealed to the government to rein in “armed groups” who he said were “acting freely, with impunity.”