Troops stormed a Caracas square on Sunday to evict protesters who turned it into a stronghold during six weeks of demonstrations against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
National Guard soldiers fired tear gas and turned water cannons on hundreds of demonstrators, who hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails, before abandoning Plaza Altamira, in affluent east Caracas, which had been the scene of daily clashes.
Some soldiers rode into the square on motorbikes, rounding up a dozen of demonstrators, witnesses said.
One flashed a “V” for victory as he was driven away, another shouted: “Help.”
The troops then began demolishing protesters’ barricades, apparently carrying out Maduro’s vow to retake the square.
“We are going to carry on liberating spaces taken by the protesters,” the 51-year-old successor to former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez said in a speech at a pro-government rally in a different part of Caracas on Sunday.
Militant opposition leaders and students have been urging Venezuelans onto the streets to protest issues ranging from crime and shortages of goods to the presence of Cuban advisers in the Venezuelan army and other state institutions.
Earlier on Sunday, thousands marched toward the Carlota military air base in the latest daily demonstration against the socialist government. The protests began early last month.
“I spend five or six hours lining up just to buy two packets of flour, or two bottles of cooking oil,” pensioner Pedro Perez, 64, said at the opposition rally. “Also, I’m protesting over insecurity and the lies this government tells Venezuelans, bringing Cuban soldiers here ... This is an ungovernable country, we can’t carry on like this.”
In another day of rallies around the nation, thousands of government supporters also marched peacefully in Caracas to praise the government’s food welfare policies.
“We are going to strengthen the brotherhood between the Venezuelan and Cuban peoples,” Maduro told that rally in response to the opposition march’s anti-Cuba slogans.
Venezuela supplies more than 100,000 barrels of oil per day to Cuba, for which it is partly paid by the presence of more than 30,000 medics, sports trainers and others from the communist-ruled Caribbean island.
Outside Caracas, opposition party Popular Will said that members of the armed forces had stopped and beaten several politicians trying to visit imprisoned protest leader Leopoldo Lopez at the Ramo Verde jail about an hour from the capital.
Lopez, who heads the Popular Will party, was arrested last month on charges of fomenting violence.
In a handwritten interview with pro-opposition newspaper El Universal, Lopez, 42, said he had developed a strict regime of exercise, studies and writing from his prison cell.
“I try to be disciplined because I’m aware that in jail the main tools of my struggle are my mind and spirit,” Lopez said.
Despite the turbulence in Caracas and other cities around Venezuela, Maduro seems in little danger of being toppled by a “Venezuelan Spring.”
The armed forces seem firmly behind him, the numbers of protesters are far fewer than a wave of demonstrations against Chavez a decade ago and opposition leaders are divided over the wisdom of street tactics.
However, Maduro has come under pressure from some foreign governments and human rights groups over excessive use of force by his security forces. About 21 officers have been arrested for allegations of brutality.