Tear gas and rubber bullets fired at anti-Maduro protesters in Venezuela


Authorities have fired tear gas and rubber bullets at thousands of opponents of President Nicolas Maduro on the streets of Caracas amid a week-long protest in Venezuela. The demonstrations in the capital and other cities came a day after Mr Maduro’s government barred top opposition leader Henrique Capriles from running for office for 15 years.

The ban capped a tumultuous 10-day crackdown that saw pro-government groups rough up several opposition leaders and another seek refuge in a foreign embassy to escape arrest. The protests were triggered by the Supreme Court’s decision to gut the opposition-controlled legislature of its last vestiges of power.

The move that was later reversed amid widespread international condemnation and even dissent within Mr Maduro’s socialist leadership. “Nobody can disqualify the Venezuelan people,” an emotional Mr Capriles said from a stage on Saturday as he called on protesters to march to the Ombudsman’s office.

As the sea of protesters approached the headquarters of state-run PDVSA oil company, they were met by tear gas and rubber bullets. Mayhem ensued, with riot police racing down windy streets, dodging objects thrown from apartment buildings as they deployed to squash the unrest.

At least 17 people were treated for injuries, according to Ramon Muchacho, a Caracas-area mayor where the demonstration took place. Around most of Caracas, checkpoints were set up to search cars and frisk bus passengers even miles away from the clashes.

As the most dominant figure in the opposition over the past decade, Mr Capriles has been at the forefront of the protests. They are the most combative since a wave of anti-government unrest in 2014, in which dozens of people were killed.

The almost-daily churn of events in what the opposition calls an “ongoing coup” by the government has energised and united the normally fractious opposition.

While opposition leaders have insisted on peaceful protest, frustration built up over 17 years of polarising socialist rule in Venezuela is running high on both sides. As Saturday’s march began, protesters snatched a camera from pro-government state broadcaster VTV, chasing them away from the crowd with kicks and insults.

Police made social media posts of mugshots of protesters taken undercover and asked for information on the unidentified “generators of violence”. Leaders in the ruling socialist party have accused the opposition of trying to provoke a bloodbath and its own coup.

Mr Maduro did not comment on Friday during a state TV appearance about the comptroller general’s order against Mr Capriles. But he urged his supporters not to be distracted by tough language coming from “Capriloca”, a play on the Spanish word for “crazy”.

The protesters on Saturday included 26-year-old Victoria Paez, who sported a baseball cap bearing the slogan “There’s a Way!” from Mr Capriles’ 2012 presidential run against the late Hugo Chavez. “Every day, the government gives us more reasons to leave our homes and protest,” she said.

While she said she was hopeful the world is beginning to see there are injustices in Venezuela, her father Carlos Paez was more pessimistic. “Unfortunately, if there has to be bloodshed for the government to change, it won’t be the first time in history,” he said.

The protest movement’s immediate goal apparently is to force Mr Maduro to call elections. Authorities last year cancelled an opposition campaign to hold a recall referendum on him and no date has yet been set for gubernatorial elections that were supposed to take place last year.

The government earlier jailed another major opposition figure, hardliner Leopoldo Lopez.

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