China suspends U.S. military visits to Hong Kong, sanctions U.S.-based NGOs

BEIJING (Reuters) – China said on Monday U.S. military ships and aircraft won’t be allowed to visit Hong Kong, and also announced sanctions against several U.S. non-government organizations for encouraging protesters to “engage in extremist, violent and criminal acts.”

The measures were announced by China’s Foreign Ministry in response to U.S. legislation passed last week supporting anti-government protesters. It said it had suspended taking requests for U.S. military visits indefinitely, and warned of further action to come.

“We urge the U.S. to correct the mistakes and stop interfering in our internal affairs. China will take further steps if necessary to uphold Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity and China’s sovereignty,” said ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a daily news briefing in Beijing.

China last week promised it would issue “firm counter measures” after U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act,” which supports anti-government protesters in Hong Kong and threatens China with potential sanctions.

There are fears that the row over Hong Kong could impact efforts by Beijing and Washington to reach preliminary deal that could de-escalate a prolonged trade war between the two countries.

The U.S.-headquartered NGOs targeted by Beijing include the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the International Republican Institute, Human Rights Watch, and Freedom House.

“They shoulder some responsibility for the chaos in Hong Kong and they should be sanctioned and pay the price,” said Hua.

In more normal times, several U.S. naval ships visit Hong Kong annually, a rest-and-recreation tradition that dates back to the pre-1997 colonial era which Beijing allowed to continue after the handover from British to Chinese rule.

Visits have at times been refused amid broader tensions and two U.S. ships were denied access in August.

The USS Blue Ridge, the command ship of the Japanese-based Seventh Fleet, stopped in Hong Kong in April – the last ship to visit before mass protests broke out in June.

Foreign NGOs are already heavily restricted in China, and have previously received sharp rebukes for reporting on rights issues in the country including the mass detention of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

(Reporting by Cate Cadell and Beijing Monitoring Desk; Editing by Tom Hogue & Simon Cameron-Moore)

Hong Kong protesters clash with police, angry at lack of prosecutions after subway mob attack

Protesters fire nitrogen extinguishers during a stand off at Yuen Long MTR station, the scene of an attack by suspected triad gang members a month ago, in Yuen Long, New Territories, Hong Kong, China August 21, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

By James Pomfret and Greg Torode

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Thousands of jeering Hong Kong residents held a raucous anti-government protest on Wednesday at a suburban subway station that was attacked by a mob last month, angry that nobody has yet been prosecuted for the violence.

Some masked protesters clashed with police in the sub-tropical heat, spraying fire extinguishers from the inside of Yuen Long station as others smeared the floor with cooking oil to stop the police advancing.

Some demonstrators blocked station exits and sealed roads outside the station, aiming green laser beams at the lines of shield-bearing officers. Others threw empty fire extinguishers at police lines from overpasses.

It was the latest in a series of demonstrations, which have sometimes turned violent, since June against a perceived erosion of freedoms in the Chinese-ruled former British colony.

Wednesday’s protest marked the night of July 21, when more than 100 white-shirted men stormed the Yuen Long station hours after protesters had marched through central Hong Kong and defaced China’s Liaison Office – the main symbol of Beijing’s authority.

Using pipes and clubs, the men attacked black-clad protesters returning from Hong Kong island as well as passers-by, journalists and a lawmaker, wounding 45 people.

Democratic Party legislator Lam Cheuk-ting, who was wounded in the attack by suspected triad gangsters, said he believed the protesters wanted a peaceful night on Wednesday but he could not rule out further violence – from gangsters or the police.

“It is impossible to predict… It is deeply disappointing that all these weeks later we still don’t have an independent inquiry into those events,” he told Reuters.

Squads of police were stationed on the station perimeter and some protesters jeered and shone lasers at them. A small crowd of masked young men gathered on a station balcony, swearing and cursing at police vans down a side street.

Anger erupted in June over a now-suspended bill that would allow criminal suspects in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China for trial. Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said again on Tuesday the legislation was dead.

The unrest has been fueled by broader worries about the erosion of freedoms guaranteed under the “one country, two systems” formula adopted after Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997, including an independent judiciary and the right to protest. Demonstrations have included the storming of the legislature and havoc at the airport.

SHARP REACTION FROM BEIJING

At a speakers’ corner beneath the MTR station on Wednesday, people denounced police violence and their perceived desertion of duty on July 21.

“They just walked away,” one woman said. “What kind of police are these?”

Peter, a 17-year-old student handing out free drinks and masks, said he wanted the night to be peaceful.

“We need to give the frontline fighters a rest from fighting the police, so they can fight again later if we need,” he said.

The protests have prompted sharp reactions from Beijing, which has accused foreign countries, including the United States, of fomenting unrest. China has also sent clear warning that forceful intervention is possible, with paramilitary forces holding drills in neighboring Shenzhen.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated Washington’s calls for China to honor its commitment to “one country, two systems”.

Speaking to CBS program “This Morning” on Tuesday, Pompeo highlighted remarks by President Donald Trump at the weekend warning against a crackdown like Beijing’s suppression of pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Trump said this would make reaching a deal he has been seeking to end a trade war with China “very hard”.

In an editorial on Tuesday, China’s influential state-run tabloid, the Global Times, called Monday’s comments by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence linking the trade talks to the Hong Kong protests “outrageous”.

Likely worsening already strained ties between Beijing and London, a Chinese national working at Britain’s Hong Kong consulate has been detained in China’s border city of Shenzhen for violating the law.

Some Hong Kong companies have been dragged into controversy amid the protests.

Pilots and cabin crew at Cathay Pacific Airways described a “white terror” of political denunciations, sackings and phone searches by Chinese aviation officials.

The Hong Kong Pharmacists’ Union said it was concerned about the spread of toxic chemicals from the tear gas used by police in some of the protests.

“We would suggest the protective measures and decontamination actions to be taken after the release of tear gas in your community and the mass transit system,” it said in a statement.

Police responded by reading out from Wikipedia that tear gas does not harm humans.

(Additional reporting by Felix Tam; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Hong Kong protesters disrupt train services, cause commuter chaos

Anti-extradition bill demonstrators block a Mass Transit Railway (MTR) train in Hong Kong, China July 30, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By Vimvam Tong and Felix Tam

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hundreds of Hong Kong protesters blocked train services during the morning rush hour on Tuesday, causing commuter chaos in the latest anti-government campaign to roil the former British colony.

What started three months ago as rallies against an extradition bill that would have allowed people in Hong Kong to be sent to mainland China for trial, has evolved into a wider backlash against the city’s government and its political masters in Beijing.

Protests have occurred almost daily, sometimes with little notice, disrupting business, piling pressure on the city’s beleaguered government and stretching its police force, which some have accused of using excessive force.

Activists blocked train doors, playing havoc with services and forcing hundreds of people to stream out of railway stations in search of alternative transport.

“We don’t know how long we are going to stay here, we don’t have a leader, as you can see this is a mass movement now,” said Sharon, a 21-year-old masked protester who declined to give her full name.

“It’s not our intention to inconvenience people, but we have to make the authorities understand why we protest. We will continue with this as long as needed.”

Others chanted, “Liberate Hong Kong,” and “Revolution of our time”.

By mid-morning, commuters were crammed into stations across the city, waiting to board trains that were badly delayed, with no service on some lines.

Rail operator MTR Corp urged people to seek other transport.

Transport Secretary Frank Chan called on protesters to stop targeting a rail network that provides transport to five million people a day, public broadcaster RTHK reported.

Hong Kong, which returned to China in 1997, is embroiled in its worst political crisis for decades after two months of increasingly violent protests that have posed one of the gravest populist challenges to Communist Party rulers in Beijing.

‘INCONVENIENT AND ANNOYING’

China on Monday reiterated its support for Hong Kong’s embattled leader, Carrie Lam, and its police and urged Hong Kong people to oppose violence.

Lam’s popularity has dropped to a record low, according to a survey by the independent Public Opinion Research Institute released on Tuesday.

The survey, conducted between July 17 and July 19, showed Lam scored a rating of 30.1, down from 33.4 at the beginning of the month. Her approval rate stands at 21%, while her disapproval rate is 70%.

Over the last few years, many people in Hong Kong have become concerned about the whittling away of the city’s freedoms, guaranteed under a “one country, two systems” formula established when it returned to China in 1997.

China denies interfering and has warned that the protests are an “undisguised challenge” to the formula under which the city is ruled, and risked damaging its economy.

The mass transit protest follows a demonstration at the Chinese-ruled city’s international airport on Friday and violent protests at the weekend when activists clashed with police who fired rubber bullets, tear gas and sponge grenades – a crowd-control weapon.

Some scuffles broke out between commuters and protesters, who gradually began to disperse, while more police were deployed in stations, where they stopped protesters to search their bags.

Commuters grew increasingly frustrated over the disruption, and shops, including bakeries and convenience stores, had also begun to close.

“It’s so inconvenient and annoying, really. I am in a hurry to work, to make a living. Will you give away your salary to me?” said a 64-year-old man surnamed Liu.

Others were more supportive, refusing to blame the protesters.

“This non-cooperation movement is caused by Carrie Lam. She doesn’t cooperate with the people of Hong Kong or respond to their demands,” Jason Lo, 31, told Reuters as he waited for a train.

(Reporting by Sumeet Chatterjee, Vimvam Tong and Felix Tam; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Farah Master; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Robert Birsel)

Man arrested in plot to bomb Oklahoma bank

Jerry Drake Varnell, is pictured in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters August 14, 2017. Oklahoma Department of Corrections/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – An Oklahoma man was arrested after what he thought was an attempt over the weekend to bomb an Oklahoma City bank building as part of an anti-government plot, U.S. prosecutors said on Monday.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Jerry Drake Varnell, 23, on Saturday after an undercover agent posed as a co-conspirator and agreed to help him build what he believed was a 1,000-pound (454 kg) explosive.

Varnell had initially planned to bomb the U.S. Federal Reserve in Washington in a manner similar to the 1995 explosion at a federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people, according to a complaint.

FBI agents arrested Varnell after he went as far as making a call early on Saturday morning to a mobile phone he believed would detonate a device in a van parked next to a BancFirst Corp building in downtown Oklahoma City, the complaint said.

“This arrest is the culmination of a long-term domestic terrorism investigation involving an undercover operation, during which Varnell had been monitored closely for months as the alleged bomb plot developed,” federal prosecutors said in a statement. “The device was actually inert, and the public was not in danger.”

Varnell, of Sayre, Oklahoma, was charged with malicious attempted destruction of a building in interstate commerce. He is expected to make his first court appearance in federal court in Oklahoma City on Monday afternoon.

 

(Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York and Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Lisa Von Ahn)

 

Venezuela opposition challenges Maduro with unofficial referendum

Venezuelan opposition leader and Governor of Miranda state Henrique Capriles attends a meeting of the Venezuelan coalition of opposition parties (MUD) in Caracas, Venezuela July 3, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Diego Oré and Eyanir Chinea

CARACAS (Reuters) – President Nicolas Maduro’s foes announced plans on Monday for an unofficial referendum to let Venezuelans have their say on his plan to rewrite the constitution and the opposition’s alternative push for an election to replace him.

The opposition, starting a fourth month of street protests against the socialist government it decries as a dictatorship, will organize the symbolic vote for July 16 as part of its strategy to delegitimize the unpopular Maduro.

Venezuelans will also be asked their view on the military’s responsibility for “recovering constitutional order” and the formation of a new “national unity” government, the Democratic Unity coalition announced.

“Let the people decide!” said Julio Borges, the president of the opposition-led National Assembly, confirming what two senior opposition sources told Reuters earlier on Monday.

The opposition’s planned vote, likely to be dismissed by the government, would be two weeks ahead of a planned July 30 vote proposed by Maduro for a Constituent Assembly with powers to reform the constitution and supersede other institutions.

“The government is trying to formalize dictatorship,” said opposition leader Henrique Capriles, warning the South American OPEC nation was approaching “zero hour”.

According to a recent survey by pollster Datanalisis, seven in 10 Venezuelans are opposed to rewriting the constitution, which was reformed by late leader Hugo Chavez in 1999.

Maduro, 54, Chavez’s unpopular successor, says the assembly is the only way to bring peace to Venezuela after the deaths of at least 84 people in and around anti-government unrest since the start of April.

“The people have a right to vote and the people will vote on July 30, rain or shine!” Maduro said to cheers during a speech at an open-air event on Monday with candidates to the new assembly, during which he also prayed and danced.

Opponents say Maduro’s plan is a ruse to consolidate the ruling Socialist Party’s grip on power and avoid a conventional free election that opinion polls show he would lose.

Critics also accuse the government of threatening people with layoffs or loss of state-provided homes if they do not vote. Maduro on Monday urged state workers to participate, saying for instance that every single employee of state oil company PDVSA should cast a ballot.

‘DARKNESS’ NOT FOREVER

The next presidential vote is due by the end of 2018, but protesters have been demanding it be brought forward, even as Maduro’s opponents worry about how free and fair such a vote would be.

The two highest-profile potential opposition candidates for a presidential election are Capriles, who has been barred from holding office, and Leopoldo Lopez, who is in jail.

Opposition protesters also want solutions to a crushing economic crisis, freedom for hundreds of jailed activists, and independence for the National Assembly.

Maduro, a former foreign minister who was narrowly elected in 2013 after Chavez’s death from cancer, says protesting opponents are seeking a coup with U.S. support.

His allies say that a new Constituent Assembly would annul the existing legislature and would also remove chief state prosecutor Luisa Ortega, who has split with the socialists during the crisis and become a thorn in their side.

Officials have turned on Ortega and are petitioning the Supreme Court to remove her. On Monday, the comptroller’s office announced a national audit of state prosecutors’ offices.

Ortega’s office described it as “revenge for the current institutional crisis” and accused comptroller officials of “abuses” in trying to enter buildings without prior notice.

“The darkness does not last forever nor does it extend in its totality,” Ortega said in an address to the National Assembly. “We must make big efforts to reactivate the institutional and electoral paths.”

(Additional reporting by Alexandra Ulmer and Andreina Aponte; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne and Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Frances Kerry and Mary Milliken)

U.N. urges Venezuela’s Maduro to uphold rule of law

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a gathering in support of him and his proposal for the National Constituent Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela June 27, 2017. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United Nations on Friday criticized President Nicolas Maduro’s government for curtailing the powers of the chief state prosecutor and called on it to uphold the rule of law and freedom of assembly in Venezuela amid a clampdown on protesters.

Critics of Maduro have taken to the streets almost daily for three months to protest against what they call the creation of a dictatorship. The protests, which have left nearly 80 dead, frequently culminate in violent clashes with security forces.

Ruling Socialist Party officials have launched a series of attacks against chief state prosecutor Luisa Ortega, from accusations of insanity to promoting violence, after her high-profile break with the government.

“The decision by the Venezuelan Supreme Court on 28 June to begin removal proceedings against the Attorney General, freeze her assets and ban her from leaving the country is deeply worrying, as is the ongoing violence in the country,” U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told a Geneva briefing.

The Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber has nullified Ortega’s appointment of a deputy attorney general, naming someone else in violation of the law, he said. It also transferred some of her functions to the ombudsperson.

“Since March, the Attorney General has taken important steps to defend human rights, documenting deaths during the wave of demonstrations, insisting on the need for due process and the importance of the separation of powers, and calling for people who have been arbitrarily detained to be immediately released,” Colville said.

The U.N. human rights office was concerned the Supreme Court’s decision “appears to seek to strip her office of its mandate and responsibilities as enshrined in the Venezuelan Constitution, and undermine the office’s independence”.

“We urge all powers of the Venezuelan state to respect the constitution and the rule of law, and call on the government to ensure the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of opinion and expression are guaranteed,” Colville said.

Maduro says the demonstrations are an attempt to overthrow him with the support of Washington.

The United Nations has received increasing reports that security forces have “raided residential buildings, conducted searches without warrants and detained people, allegedly with the intention of deterring people from participating in the demonstrations and searching for opposition supporters,” Colville said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Heroes or agitators? Young lawmakers on Venezuela’s front line

FILE PHOTO: (L-R) Deputies of the opposition parties Carlos Paparoni, Jose Manuel Olivares and Juan Andres Mejias shout slogans during a march to state Ombudsman's office in Caracas, Venezuela May 29, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

By Andrew Cawthorne and Victoria Ramirez

CARACAS (Reuters) – One was knocked off his feet by a water cannon. Another was pushed into a drain. Most have been pepper-sprayed, tear-gassed, beaten and hit by pellet shots.

A group of young Venezuelan lawmakers has risen to prominence on the violent front line of anti-government marches that have shaken the South American country for three months, bringing 75 deaths.

On the streets daily leading demonstrators, pushing at security barricades and sometimes picking up teargas canisters to hurl back at police and soldiers, the energetic National Assembly members are heroes to many opposition supporters.

But to President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government, they are the chief “terrorists” in a U.S.-backed coup plot aimed at controlling the vast oil wealth of the OPEC nation.

The dozen or so legislators, all in their late 20s or early 30s, belong mainly to the Justice First and Popular Will parties, which are promoting civil disobedience against a president they term a dictator.

They march largely without protective gear – unlike the masked and shield-bearing youths around them – though supporters and aides sometimes form circles to guard them.

They do not receive salaries since funds to the National Assembly were squeezed, living instead off gifts from relatives and friends. And some still reside at home with parents.

One of the best known, Juan Requesens, 28, has taken more hits than most. He nurses a scar in the head from a stick thrown by government supporters, wounds around his body from pellets and gas cannisters and bruises from being shoved into a deep drain by National Guard soldiers.

“The worst thing for me is when comrades die, when they fall at my side,” the burly, bearded Requesens told Reuters, saying he had been near nine fatalities since April.

Protesters have been demanding a presidential vote and solutions to hunger and medical shortages. The deaths have included not only demonstrators, but also Maduro supporters, bystanders and members of the security forces.

There have been thousands of injuries too, and nearly 1,500 people remain behind bars, according to local rights groups, after roundups around the country.

Requesens, who represents western Tachira State where there is radical opposition to Maduro, freely admits his role as an “agitator” for the opposition. But despite his tough image, he obeyed his mother’s order to stay at home after the head injury.

“For four days, she wouldn’t let me go out – but it was fine because I rested and recovered quicker, then back again of course,” he said.

Some have dubbed the band of lawmakers “the class of 2007” for their roots in a student movement a decade ago that helped the opposition to a rare victory against Maduro’s popular predecessor Hugo Chavez in a referendum.

“It’s a group born in the street during the 2007 protests. We’re meeting up again 10 years later doing the same,” said Harvard-educated Juan Mejia, 31.

“EXISTENTIAL STRUGGLE”

Mejia, lawmaker for Miranda State, which includes part of the capital Caracas, has lost one friend in a protest and another in an accident on the way to a march.

“For us, this is an existential struggle,” he added, saying his generation grew up under socialist rule and was fed up with economic hardship, crime and political repression.

“I’m 31 and I’d like to live off my work, but I can’t … I don’t want to depend on my parents all my life,” he added in a hotel where opposition politicians were strategizing during a brief lull in their daily street activities.

Officials accuse the lawmakers of paying youths and even children as young as 12 to attack security forces, block roads and burn property. They have threatened to jail them.

State airlines refuse to sell them tickets, and private carriers are under pressure to do the same, meaning they cannot fly around the country, the lawmakers say. Some have also had passports confiscated or annulled, blocking foreign travel.

In a typical recent speech, Maduro blasted Freddy Guevara, a 31-year-old lawmaker who leads the Popular Will party in the absence of its jailed leader Leopoldo Lopez, as “Chucky” in reference to a murderous doll in a horror film.

He also singled out Miguel Pizarro, 29, a drum-playing lawmaker with the Justice First party who recently wept at a news conference minutes after a 17-year-old was shot dead close to him during a protest in Caracas.

“He puts on that dumb face and behind it, he’s ordering them to kill and burn,” Maduro said. “Pizarro, you’re listening to me; you’ll carry this with you all your life.”

The lawmakers scoff at that, saying they now carry the nation’s dreams for change while an ever-more desperate Maduro is clinging to power against the majority’s will.

Their mantra is peaceful protest, and indeed when marches have not been blocked – such as to a state TV office and the Catholic Church headquarters – there has been no trouble.

But some admit to tossing back gas cannisters or throwing the odd stone, and there has been criticism the legislators have not done enough to restrain violence within opposition ranks, from burning property to lynching someone.

Jose Manuel Olivares, a 31-year-old lawmaker for coastal Vargas State, is a doctor and says his profession makes it all the more important to avoid violence. He recently required 12 stitches after being hit in the head by a tear gas cannister, and has often given first aid during clashes in the streets.

Yet he defends protesters’ rights to “self-defense” and admits to wearing gloves to pick up gas cannisters.

“If I’m surrounded by old people, adults or even my family, and teargas falls nears us, it’s legitimate defense to throw it back. Stones? Yes. But stones against bullets … The battle is disproportional,” he said.

“I’m not saying we’re martyrs … but we’re trying to give the best example we can, fighting for the country, saying ‘Here I am, taking risks just like you and you’.”

(Additional reporting by Andreina Aponte; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Cynthia Osterman)

Venezuelan soldier shoots protester dead in airbase attack, minister says

Riot security forces members congregate next to a government truck that was set on fire during a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela June 22, 2017. REUTERS/Christian Veron

By Andreina Aponte

CARACAS (Reuters) – A Venezuelan military police sergeant shot dead a protester who was attacking the perimeter of an airbase on Thursday, the interior minister said, bringing renewed scrutiny of the force used to control riots that have killed at least 76 people.

At least two soldiers shot long firearms through the fence from a distance of just a few feet at protesters who were throwing rocks, television footage showed.

One man collapsed to the ground and was carried off by other protesters. Paramedics took at least two other injured people to a hospital, a Reuters witness said.

“The sergeant used an unauthorized weapon to repel the attack, causing the death of one of assailants,” Interior minister Nestor Reverol said on Twitter. He said the air force police sergeant faced legal proceedings.

Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have taken to the streets in recent months to protest against a clampdown on the opposition, shortages of food and medicine, and President Nicolas Maduro’s plan to overhaul the constitution.

The reaction of the security forces to provocation at marches has been in the spotlight since images showed a national guard member pointing a pistol at demonstrators on Monday, prompting the opposition to intensify its street campaign.

The protesters who attacked the fence outside La Carlota airbase in the wealthy east of Caracas had earlier burned a truck and a motorbike when security forces firing rubber bullets broke up a march destined for the attorney general’s office.

David Jose Vallenilla, 22, died after arriving at a hospital in the Chacao municipality where the protest happened.

Opposition supporters march during a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela June 22, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Opposition supporters march during a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government in Caracas, Venezuela June 22, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

SHOTS, PETROL BOMBS

A small group of protesters throwing petrol bombs from behind flimsy homemade shields cheered when powerful fireworks used as weapons landed near troops in the airbase. They managed to rip down a section of the fence surrounding the base, despite volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets.

At least one soldier aimed a shotgun through the fence, Reuters pictures showed. The national guard uses shotgun cartridges filled with small rubber pellets against protests.

Reverol said two soldiers were seriously injured by “explosives” the protesters launched, and said shots and petrol bombs hit a primary school on the base during the attack.

Opposition lawmaker Jose Manuel Olivares said Vallenilla had been killed by the national guard firing rubber bullets at point blank range. Olivares, whose arm was wounded in the protest, called for sit-ins on highways on Friday and protests at military bases on Saturday.

Vallenilla suffered wounds to the lungs and heart, a doctor who attended him told Reuters. The attorney general’s office said he was shot three times.

Maduro says the violence is part of a foreign-led plot to overthrow his government and criticizes the opposition for fanning it, however authorities have taken action against three national guard sergeants accused of killing a boy on Monday.

Venezuela’s national guard is a wing of the military charged with internal public order. It mainly uses tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets to control protests that frequently escalate into riots.

On Monday, a teenager died during another protest in the same area after footage showed a national guard soldier pointing a pistol at protesters.

Maduro moved the head of the national guard to a new position looking after security in the capital after that incident, part of a reshuffle that brought several more military figures into his cabinet.

“I have ordered an investigation to see if there was a conspiracy behind this,” Maduro said earlier on Thursday. He said the men involved in Monday’s shooting had been detained.

The office of the attorney general, a former Maduro loyalist who has turned against him over his push to rewrite the constitution, named three national guard sergeants on Thursday, saying they were charged with homicide for that shooting and that a court had put them in custody.

(Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, Richard Pullin and Paul Tait)

A daily conundrum in convulsed Venezuela: will my kids make it to school?

FILE PHOTO: School children protect themselves from tear gas during a rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela April 26, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

By Brian Ellsworth and Andreina Aponte

CARACAS (Reuters) – With anti-government protesters blocking avenues and highways across Venezuela several times a week, many parents spend their evenings asking the same question – will my kids make it to school tomorrow?

While parents worry they will be unable to pick up their children after classes because of the tumult, teachers are often forced to skip work due to the clashes between protesters and troops.

Yet the Education Ministry has refused to cancel classes at state schools even when spillover from demonstrations poses a risk to children – primarily from the tear gas fired to disperse protesters.

It also has forbidden private schools, which serve about a quarter of the country’s primary and secondary school students, from suspending lessons.

The result is that one of the most routine parenting responsibilities – getting children to school – now requires constantly juggling of contingency plans and calculating the odds of getting through protests that have left 75 people dead.

“We check Twitter until about 9:30, 10:00 at night and that’s when we decide if we’re going to take our son to school the next day,” said Ignacio, 33, a telecom engineer who asked that his last name not be used for fear of reprisals.

“Sometimes my wife will leave to pick him up and she’ll come across barricades or lanes closed on the highway, so we have to figure out if I have to rush from work to get him.”

Outraged by triple-digit inflation and chronic shortages of food and medicine, demonstrators gather on main avenues for protests that range from peaceful sit-ins to rock-throwing melees with troops firing rubber bullets and tear gas.

That creates traffic chaos that can disrupt public transportation just as school is letting out.

Protesters are demanding that the Socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro address a crippling economic crisis and scrap plans to rewrite the constitution of the South American oil producer.

Parents try to delicately explain to their kids why they are not in class while still sheltering them from the country’s virulent political discourse, which is increasingly drifting into the lexicon of even elementary school children.

Teachers constantly reschedule lessons and tests to compensate for missed days of the academic year, which normally runs from October to July. Parents worry that their kids risk falling behind in their studies if the unrest continues.

The protests have disrupted daily life well beyond schools. They at times prevent deliveries of raw materials to factories, force state agencies to remain closed, and lead shops to preventively shut their doors on rumors that demonstrations are devolving into looting.

The Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment on the situation.

Caribay Valenzuela (R), walks with her daughters (L-R) Carlota, Eloisa and Carmen, after picking them up on the school on a day of protests in Caracas, Venezuela June 19, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Caribay Valenzuela (R), walks with her daughters (L-R) Carlota, Eloisa and Carmen, after picking them up on the school on a day of protests in Caracas, Venezuela June 19, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

TEAR GAS IN CLASSROOMS

Ruling Socialist Party officials say the protests are part of a violent effort to overthrow Maduro. They say the constant disruptions of public order limit access to education and thus undermine late socialist leader Hugo Chavez’s efforts to invest in  schools

Maduro says private schools have in some cases canceled class as a way of supporting the opposition.

“I have ordered an investigation against those owners of private schools that have promoted hatred, racism, violence,” Maduro said in a televised broadcast in May.

The Education Ministry last month said it had fined 15 private schools for “permitting, provoking and inciting violent actions in educational facilities and their surrounding areas.”

As a result, schools remain open even under extreme circumstances.

National Guard troops in late May fired a tear gas canister into the main patio of a school called the Montessori Institute in the city of Barquisimeto, according to a local media report, in an apparent effort to disperse a nearby protest.

When a group of students left the building to escape the fumes, three of them were detained by the National Guard, according to the report.

A school official said the report was accurate but declined further comment.

Two Caracas Catholic schools in separate incidents in April had to evacuate children after they were flooded by clouds of tear gas, according to Reuters witnesses. The schools declined to comment.

Chief Prosecutor Luisa Ortega, who has become a high-profile critic of the government’s handling of protests, recently called on security forces not to fire tear gas near clinics and schools.

Under the circumstances, many parents opt to leave kids at home. But this can lead to heightened government scrutiny of schools.

Education Ministry officials threatened to shutter one private school in the central state of Lara, where classrooms went empty for days on end due to parents’ safety concerns, according to two parents of children that study there.

They backed off the threat after an inspection determined that teachers were working normal hours, sitting in silent classrooms and maintaining lesson plans, they said.

A third parent, who is involved in the parent-teacher association, confirmed the incident but asked that the school not be named to avoid reprisals. Reuters was unable to obtain comment from the school.

Caribay Valenzuela, whose two daughters study near the Altamira neighborhood that has been a focal point of protests, sends them to school with goggles and a handkerchief in case the protests spill over.

The 39-year-old routinely picks up her kids early and takes them to her mother’s house because her own home is at times hit by tear gas.

“They ask me to pick up the kids at 10 a.m. when there are marches to make sure that staff can get home,” Valenzuela said.

“Maintaining the routine has been really difficult because they ask me ‘Is there school tomorrow? Is it a full day? What are we going to do tomorrow?'”

(Editing by Bill Trott)

On buses and trains, Venezuela opposition leaders protest Maduro

FILE PHOTO - A protester holds a national flag as a bank branch, housed in the magistracy of the Supreme Court of Justice, burns during a rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas, Venezuela June 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Diego Oré and Andreína Aponte

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan legislators and opposition leaders on Thursday staged protests against President Nicolas Maduro aboard buses and trains in Caracas in an effort to bypass blockades of street demonstrations by security forces.

Maduro’s adversaries have for more than two months been holding marches and rallies that are routinely cut short by troops and police, resulting in clashes that have left at least 71 people dead.

“Our message is going to travel all the stations of the subway,” said opposition deputy Juan Mejia before boarding a Caracas subway train.

“Our message will reach all those Venezuelans who have expressed a desire for a different country, but who have to go out and get their daily bread to help their family.”

Mejia said that employees of the capital’s subway, which has for years been closely controlled by the ruling Socialist Party, made announcements over loudspeakers warning of delays due to “a group of opposition sympathizers.”

Maduro’s critics say he is seeking to forge dictatorship through a legislative superbody known as a constituent assembly to be elected on July 30 in a vote opposition leaders say is rigged in favor of the Socialists.

Maduro, who was elected after the death of his mentor Hugo Chavez in 2013, says the protests are an effort to overthrow him and blames the opposition for scores of deaths. He says the constituent assembly will help the country escape a crippling economic crisis.

Authorities confirmed two more student deaths at protests on Thursday. Luis Vera, 20, was crushed by a car in the oil region of Zulia, while Jose Gregorio Perez was hit in the face in the mountain state of Tachira, the public prosecutor’s office said.

Another group of deputies boarded city buses that run through Caracas and nearby cities and explained to passersby their view that the constituent assembly “formalizes the dictatorship.”

Activists also organized a 6 a.m. visit to the National Electoral Council, which the opposition accuses of favoring Maduro’s government, to put up posters with messages such as “CNE accomplice of the dictatorship.”

It was the first time during the current wave of demonstrations that protesters were able to reach the institution. Previous marches to the headquarters were blocked by security forces.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence held up Venezuela on Thursday as a prime example of what happens when democracy is undermined and urged Latin American leaders to condemn its government, comments Maduro described as nauseating.

(Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Phil Berlowitz and Lisa Shumaker)