Venezuelans defiant after deadly rallies

POLITICAL CRISIS::The opposition accused President Nicolas Maduro of using state forces and armed thugs to repress protests as he resisted calls to step down

AFP, CARACAS

Fri, Apr 21, 2017 - Page 7

Opponents of the Venezuelan government yesterday vowed fresh huge protests, upping the ante in their bid to oust President Nicolas Maduro after a day of deadly clashes in the oil-rich, but beleaguered nation.

A 17-year-old boy and a 23-year-old woman died after being shot on Wednesday during massive protests, and a soldier outside Caracas was said to have been killed, bringing to eight the number of people killed this month in a mounting political crisis.

Riot police fired tear gas to force back stone-throwing demonstrators as hundreds of thousands of people fed up with food shortages and demanding elections joined protest marches in Caracas and several other cities.

Thousands of Maduro’s supporters held a counter-rally in central Caracas.

The opposition has accused Maduro of letting state forces and gangs of armed thugs violently repress demonstrators as he resists opposition pressure for him to quit.

Some disturbances continued into the night, with reports of looted bakeries, supermarkets and food centers in western Caracas. Despite Wednesday’s deadly violence, his opponents displayed their determination to ratchet up the pressure by calling for renewed protests.

“Today there were millions of us,” senior opposition leader Henrique Capriles, governor of Miranda State, told a news conference late on Wednesday.

“Tomorrow [yesterday] even more of us have to come out,” he said.

The 17-year-old was shot by gunmen on motorbikes who also threw tear gas canisters into a crowd of protesters, said Amadeo Leiva, head of the Clinicas Caracas Hospital which treated him.

The 23-year-old woman, Paola Ramirez, died after being shot in the head in the western city of San Cristobal, the state prosecution service said later in a statement.

A pro-government politician and reservist, Diosdado Cabello, said on his television show that anti-Maduro activists had also “murdered” a soldier in San Antonio de los Altos, a town just south of Caracas, late on Wednesday. Prosecutors confirmed the death.

Authorities had previously reported five other people killed, including a boy of 13, in protests across the nation early this month.

The opposition leader of congress, Julio Borges, and Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami traded blame for the deadly violence.

Pressure on Maduro has been mounting since 2014, as falling prices for Venezuela’s oil exports have aggravated an economic crisis.

“I don’t have any food in the fridge,” said protester Jean Tovar, 32, who held rocks in his hands ready to throw at military police in Caracas.

“I have a two-year-old son to support and I am unemployed, and it is all Maduro’s fault,” Tovar said.

Recent moves by Maduro to tighten his grip on power and ban Capriles from politics have escalated the political and economic crisis and sparked international cries of concern.

They have galvanized the often divided opposition in the recent protests in their efforts to force Maduro from power.

“We have to end this dictatorship. We’re fed up,” said Ingrid Chacon, a 54-year-old secretary.

“We want elections to get Maduro out, because he’s destroyed this country,” she added.

The president in turn has urged his supporters, the military and civilian militias to defend the “Bolivarian revolution” launched by his predecessor, Hugo Chavez ,in 1999.

“We are firmly with Maduro out of loyalty to our eternal commander” Chavez, said teacher Nancy Guzman, 50, demonstrating at Maduro’s rally on Wednesday.

The center-right opposition has called for the military to abandon him.

However, Venezuelan Minister of Defense General Vladimir Padrino Lopez has pledged the army’s “unconditional loyalty” to Maduro, who has accused the opposition of inciting a “coup” backed by the US.