Clashes in Caracas after opposition mayors arrested

AFP

Demonstrators clashed with riot police in Caracas on Thursday after a march against the arrest of two opposition mayors accused of failing to stop violence in protests that have rocked Venezuela.

Some 3,000 people had rallied against the socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro before a subgroup of protesters threw rocks at police who responded with tear gas and water cannons.

The skirmish ended a three-day lull in violence after the military removed hardline protesters from a plaza in a Caracas opposition stronghold.

Maduro’s government has been the target of near daily protests fueled by public anger over soaring crime, hyper inflation, shortages of such basic goods as toilet paper and further stoked by heavy-handed police tactics.

The president, who succeeded late leftist leader Hugo Chavez last year, has combined calls for dialogue with a hard stance against opposition rivals and demonstrators.

“They talk about peace and continue sending contradictory signals. Yesterday (Wednesday) they arrested two mayors, of course it’s a provocation,” said Alejandro Solis, a civil engineering student at the protest.

The opposition and non-governmental organizations accused the Maduro administration of using the judiciary for political ends.

The United States voiced deep concern about the two mayors’ arrests.

“The Venezuelan government should stop the violence against its citizens and opposition officials who are exercising their freedom of speech,” said US State Department spokesman Jen Psaki.

“We call, again, on the Venezuelan government to release those it has unjustly jailed, lift restrictions on freedom of the press and engage in an authentically inclusive dialogue with Venezuelans across the political spectrum,” she said.

The protests have mainly taken place in middle-class opposition strongholds and Maduro still enjoys support among Venezuela’s larger, poor population, allowing him to weather the weeks-long protests that have left 31 people dead, according to official figures.



– Crackdown on defiant mayors –



The latest demonstration was organized a day after domestic intelligence agents arrested Daniel Ceballos, the mayor of San Cristobal, the western city where the first protests erupted on February 4.

Students launched the first protest in San Cristobal to decry crime after the attempted rape of a young woman. The demonstrations then spread to other major cities.

Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez accused Ceballos of encouraging “civilian rebellion” and backing violence in his city, an opposition bastion where students and residents have built barricades to defy the authorities.

Separately, the mayor of the northern town of San Diego, Enzo Scarano, was stripped of his post by the Supreme Court and sentenced to 10 months in prison on charges that he failed in his duty to stop public disorder during protests.

In San Diego, hundreds of Scarano’s followers gathered in public squares while barricades were built in several streets. The National Electoral Council called new polls to replace the ousted mayor.

Gonzalo Himiob, director of the Penal Forum NGO, wrote on Twitter that Scarano’s arrest was a “judicial aberration.”

The two politicians were locked up at the Ramo Verde military prison outside the capital, the same site where the authorities are holding opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who has promoted protests aimed at ousting Maduro.

The ruling party in the unicameral national assembly voted to request a probe of another opposition figure, legislator Maria Corina Machado, accusing her of “instigating delinquency, treason, terrorism and homicide.”



– Dialogue or ‘smoke screen’? –



The crackdown on opposition figures contrasts with Maduro’s call for rivals to join a “peace conference.”

The main opposition refuses to join the dialogue until the government frees more than 100 protesters who remain behind bars.

“The contradictions are typical of such regimes that find their strength in repression,” political analyst Mercedes Pulido de Briceno told AFP.

She called the government’s call for dialogue a “smoke screen” to “satisfy its audience, its people.”

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