Venezuela opposition condemns ‘vandalism’ in apartment block raids

People walk past the broken fencing of a building after opposition supporters and security forces clashed in and outside the building on Tuesday according to residents, in Caracas, Venezuela June 14, 2017. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

By Diego Oré

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition lawmakers on Wednesday said security forces used excessive violence during a raid to capture protesters in a sprawling middle-class apartment complex carried out after officers came under fire.

Videos taken during the raid show an armored truck smashing through the gates of the Los Verdes complex, in an operation that Interior Minister Nestor Reverol said resulted in the capture of 23 people who had been involved in attacks on security forces.

“These subjects were involved in violent acts in which several officials were injured by gun fire,” Reverol said, describing clashes at a barricade close to the apartments as the trigger for the raid.

Los Verdes is located in a Caracas neighborhood that has been the site of almost nightly clashes over two months since protests broke out against government restrictions on the opposition and chronic shortages of basic consumer goods.

With at least 68 killed since April, the increasing intensity of protests and the government response has led some to warn that Venezuela risks descending into deeper political violence.

The government calls violent protesters “terrorists” who want to overthrow President Nicolas Maduro, and says that acts including attacks on police, the burning of vehicles and a looting and arson attack on a court building this week delegitimize their cause.

Dozens of car windows were smashed and at least 12 elevators broken during the operation on Los Verdes, said a Reuters witness at the site on Wednesday. One resident said an agent shot her dog in the eye.

“They are mafia criminals armed by the government,” said opposition lawmaker Tomas Guanipa, describing as “vandalism” the government action at the complex, which houses some 4,500 people.

Small protests and clashes rumbled on in several parts of Caracas and other cities on Wednesday, with security forces firing tear gas to clear a roadblock in a wealthy part of the capital and protesters burning a car.

Reverol said two people were killed in an accident when one motorcycle hit another after turning back from an opposition barricade on Wednesday.

The opposition street movement has been fanned by Maduro’s plan for July 30 elections for a special assembly to rewrite the constitution, which critics say are stacked in the government’s favor and will result in the opposition-controlled congress being dissolved.

The opposition is determined to stop the vote, calling instead for a presidential election. In a sign of how heated rhetoric has become, opposition lawmakers warn the situation could descend into armed conflict if protesters are not heard.

“If this government insists on going ahead, the world needs to know, sadly, what is coming here is a major war for the Venezuelans,” said lawmaker Juan Requesens at a sit-in protest blocking a Caracas highway on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Diego Ore; Editing by Leslie Adler)

Venezuela prosecutor chides government over military tribunals

Opposition supporters rally against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Eyanir Chinea and Alexandra Ulmer

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s chief prosecutor on Wednesday accused security officers of excessive force and condemned the use of military tribunals to judge protesters, deepening her split with President Nicolas Maduro’s government.

After nearly two months of massive anti-government rallies demanding early presidential elections, fissures have appeared in the hitherto publicly homogenous socialist administration.

In a speech on Wednesday, prosecutor Luisa Ortega said 55 people had been killed in unrest, around 1,000 others injured, and 346 properties burned or looted as chaos flares across the oil-rich country that is reeling from an economic crisis.

In one particularly controversial case, Ortega said investigations showed that 20 year-old student Juan Pernalete was killed by a tear gas canister fired from close range by a National Guard, not by a pistol as officials had suggested.

“Firing tear gas directly on people is banned,” she said, holding up a canister at a press conference that she gave at an alternative venue after a power outage in her office.

More than half of the injuries have been caused by security forces, she said, condemning violence on both sides.

Soon after the speech, her office announced two more deaths in the unrest, including a 14-year-old, taking the total to 57.

Ortega said her office was also investigating seven cases of military courts trying people who should be in civil courts. “We’re worried about the situation of those detained in military courts,” Ortega said, demanding access to detainees.

Rights group Penal Forum has said that 338 people have faced proceedings in military tribunals in recent days, with 175 still detained. It has said that in total, over 2,700 people have been arrested since early April, with more than 1,100 still behind bars.

“SHAM” VOTES

There was continued unrest around the country on Wednesday, with people barricading streets in some places and the opposition holding more protest marches. The Supreme Court ordered Caracas mayors to ensure that streets were clear and to take action against those responsible.

The pro-government electoral council said on Tuesday that voting for a controversial “constituent assembly” would be held in July and delayed state elections in December.

Maduro foes countered that was a sham designed to confuse Venezuelans, and to prompt infighting among the opposition and allow the unpopular leftist government to dodge free and fair elections they would likely lose.

Opposition lawmakers have said that the assembly, whose 540 members would be elected on a municipal level and by community groups like workers, would be filled with people who would merely obey Maduro’s orders to rewrite the constitution.

“Once installed, this constituent assembly will eliminate governorships, mayors, and the National Assembly,” said opposition lawmaker Tomas Guanipa.

“There’s been a break in Venezuela’s constitutional order, and the streets are our way to rescue it,” he said.

Maduro has said that he is facing an “armed insurrection” and the constituent assembly, a super body that would supersede all other public powers, is the way to restore peace to Venezuela. The former bus driver and union leader, elected in 2013, calls the opposition coup-mongers seeking to stoke violence and overthrow his “21st century Socialism.”

RIOTS AND LOOTING

Looting, roadblocks and riots are now commonplace around Venezuela given hunger, hopelessness, easy access to weapons, and gangs taking advantage of chaos as protests spin out of control.

In many places, school classes are canceled, public transportation is halted, and streets are barricaded. Some neighborhoods look like war zones after nighttime pillaging of bakeries and warehouses.

At some intersections, hooded young men ask passersby for money to “collaborate with the resistance.”

Traffic was blocked in parts of the capital on Wednesday.

The trouble has been particularly bad this week in Barinas, the home state of Maduro’s mentor and predecessor Hugo Chavez that the socialists regard as the “cradle of the revolution.”

Seven people died in protests there in the last few days, according to the state prosecutor.

A man who had been set alight on Saturday by protesters in Caracas appeared on state television from his hospital bed and said that he had been attacked for being a government supporter, echoing Maduro’s version of the incident over the weekend.

“They said I had to die because I was a ‘Chavista’,” said Orlando Figuera, adding that he was not a supporter of the ruling ‘Chavismo’ movement named for the former president.

Witnesses to that incident, including a Reuters photographer, had said the crowd accused him of being a thief. But officials have said that the attack on Figuera was an example of the “fascist” violence they are facing.

A protesting violinist, who has been a regular fixture playing the National Anthem and other tunes despite tear gas, flying rocks and petrol bombs in Caracas, told reporters that security forces broke his instrument on Wednesday.

A video of him crying with his smashed instrument went viral on Venezuelan social media. Supporters bought him a replacement.

(Additional reporting by Diego Ore, Mircely Guanipa, Corina Pons, Andrew Cawthorne, Andreina Aponte, and Brian Ellsworth; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer and Girish Gupta; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Toni Reinhold)

Highland Venezuelan town blitzed by looting and protests

Manuel Fernandes, a local businessman, embraces a neighbour outside of his bread and cake shop after looters broke in, following days of protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in the city of Los Teques, near Caracas, Venezuela, May 19, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Andrew Cawthorne

LOS TEQUES, Venezuela (Reuters) – Like many Portuguese immigrants to Venezuela after World War Two, Manuel Fernandes spent a lifetime building a small business: his bread and cake shop in a highland town.

It took just one night for it to fall apart.

The first he knew of the destruction of his beloved “Bread Mansion” store on a main avenue of Los Teques was when looters triggered the alarm, resulting in a warning call to his cellphone at 7 p.m. on Wednesday.

Fernandes was stuck at home due to barricades and protests that have become common in seven weeks of anti-government unrest in Venezuela. So he was forced to watch the disaster unfold via live security camera images.

“There were hundreds of people. They smashed the glass counters, the fridges. They took everything – ham, cheese, milk, cornflakes, equipment,” the 65-year-old said, as workmen secured the shop on Friday with thick metal plates.

“I’ve dedicated everything to this. My family depends on it,” said the distraught businessman, on a street where most neighboring stores were also ransacked in a frenzy of looting in Los Teques this week.

Unrest and protests against President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government since early April have caused at least 46 deaths plus hundreds of injuries and arrests.

They have also sparked widespread nighttime looting.

When a mob smashed its way into a bakery in El Valle, a working class neighborhood of Caracas, last month, 11 people died, eight of them electrocuted and three shot.

This week, Maduro’s government sent 2,000 troops to western Tachira state, where scores of businesses have been emptied.

In Los Teques, an hour’s drive into hills outside Caracas, locals spoke of up to half a dozen more deaths in looting and clashes this week between security forces and young protesters from a self-styled ‘Resistance’ movement.

There has been no official confirmation of those deaths.

Reuters journalists visiting the town on Friday had to negotiate permission from masked youths manning roadblocks and turning back traffic at the main entrances.

Mostly students, the young men said they had put academic work on hold and were determined to stay in the street until Maduro allowed a general election, the main demand of Venezuela’s opposition in the current political crisis.

‘NOTHING TO LOSE’

“We are from humble families. We have nothing to lose. I don’t even have enough for a bus fare or food. That tyrant Maduro has wrecked everything,” said Alfredo, 28, who stopped studying to man barricades and says he runs a unit of 23 “resistance” members.

Armed with homemade shields, stones and Molotov cocktails, the youths build barricades with branches, furniture and bags of trash, scrawling slogans like ‘No Surrender’ on nearby walls.

They turn back traffic and wait for the inevitable arrival of security forces. Some have scars and wounds from intense clashes this week.

Oil has been spread on the ground to deter armored vehicles used by the National Guard. Barbed wire is also used.

On Friday morning, one man walked up to the barricade with a woman in a wheelchair, and was granted special permission to pass. Some women, trying to visit relatives jailed in a nearby prison, also managed to talk their way through.

Mid-morning, some neighbors delivered arepas, a cornmeal flatbread that is Venezuela’s staple food, to the youths, offering them words of encouragement and thanks.

“You see, they all support us,” said Micky, covering his face with a red bandana at a barricade. “We are not coup-mongers like Maduro says. All we want is a general election.”

The 54-year-old president narrowly won election in 2013 to replace the late Hugo Chavez who died from cancer.

But without his predecessor’s charisma, popular touch and unprecedented oil revenues, Maduro has seen his popularity plunge as the economy nosedived, helping the opposition win majority support in the OPEC nation of 30 million people.

He accuses foes of an “armed insurrection,” with the support of the United States, and blames “fascist” protesters for all the deaths and destruction in Venezuela since April.

In Los Teques, however, youths at the barricades hotly deny any involvement in looting, pointing the finger instead at local pro-government neighborhood groups known as ‘colectivos.’

The unrest is exacerbating an already appalling economic crisis in Venezuela. There is widespread scarcity of food and medicines, inflation is making people poorer and hungrier, and standing for hours in shopping lines has become a norm for many.

“I’m closing. So the same people who did this to me now won’t have anywhere to buy their food,” said Fernandes, running his hands through his hair and surveying the once-bustling commercial street of now boarded-up shop fronts.

“Why are we all hurting and fighting each other?”

(Editing by Girish Gupta, Toni Reinhold)

Mayhem rages in west Venezuela; Capriles blocked from U.N. trip

Opposition supporters clash with riot security forces while rallying against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 18, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Anggy Polanco and Andreina Aponte

SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela/CARACAS (Reuters) – Mobs looted shops and fought security forces overnight in Venezuela’s restive western region, where three soldiers were being charged on Thursday with the fatal shooting of a man who was buying diapers for his baby, witnesses said.

Six weeks of anti-government unrest have resulted in at least 44 deaths, as well as hundreds of injuries and arrests in the worst turmoil of President Nicolas Maduro’s four-year rule of the South American OPEC-member country.

Protesters are demanding elections to kick out the socialist government that they accuse of wrecking the economy and turning Venezuela into a dictatorship. Maduro, 54, the successor to late leader Hugo Chavez, says his foes are seeking a violent coup.

One of Maduro’s main opponents, local governor Henrique Capriles, said on Thursday that his passport was confiscated when he was at the airport outside Caracas for a flight to New York, where he was to visit the United Nations and denounce human rights violations.

“My passport is valid until 2020. What they want to do here is avoid us going to the United Nations,” Capriles said, before returning to the capital to join a protest march.

The U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, was due to meet with Capriles in New York on Friday.

“Hope (Capriles’) passport removal is not reprisal linked to planned meeting with me tomorrow,” Zeid said on Twitter.

The move comes a month after Capriles, a two-time presidential candidate who was seen by many as the opposition’s best chance in the presidential election scheduled for 2018, was banned from holding political office for 15 years.

Capriles, a sports-loving lawyer who has tried to shake the opposition’s reputation of elitism by focusing on grassroots efforts with poor Venezuelans, narrowly lost the 2013 vote against Maduro, and the two frequently lock horns.

UNREST IN THE WEST

Across the country near the border with Colombia, clashes and lootings raged overnight, even though the government sent 2,000 troops to Tachira state.

Security forces fired teargas at stone-throwing gangs, and crowds smashed their way into shops and offices in San Cristobal, the state capital, and elsewhere.

Manuel Castellanos, 46, was shot in the neck on Wednesday when caught in a melee while walking home with diapers he had bought for his son, witnesses said.

Diapers have become prized products in Venezuela due to widespread shortages of basic domestic items.

The State Prosecutor’s Office said three National Guard sergeants would be charged later on Thursday for their “presumed responsibility” in Castellanos’ killing.

Earlier in the week, a 15-year-old was shot dead when out buying flour for his family’s dinner.

Most shops in San Cristobal, a traditional hotbed of anti-government militancy, were closed on Thursday, with long lines at the few establishments open.

In Caracas, protesters sought to march to the Interior and Justice Ministry but were blocked on a major highway by security forces firing tear gas and using armored vehicles. That sparked now-familiar scenes of masked youths brandishing shields and throwing stones at the security line.

International anxiety about the Venezuelan crisis is growing.

U.S. President Donald Trump and his Colombian counterpart Juan Manuel Santos discussed Venezuela’s “deteriorating situation” at a White House meeting on Thursday.

“We will be working with Colombia and other countries on the Venezuela problem,” Trump said. “It is a very, very horrible problem. And from a humanitarian standpoint, it is like nothing we’ve seen in quite a long time.”

France called for mediation amid the worsening situation, and Britain warned its citizens against “all but essential travel” to Venezuela.

(Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago in Caracas, Tom Miles in Geneva and Roberta Rampton in Washington; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne, Alexandra Ulmer and Girish Gupta; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Leslie Adler)

Venezuela sends 2,000 troops to state hit by looting, protests

Workers of the health sector and opposition supporters take part in a protest against President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Anggy Polanco

SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela (Reuters) – Venezuela said it was sending 2,000 soldiers on Wednesday to a border state that is a hotspot of anti-government radicalism after looting that killed a 15-year-old in the latest unrest roiling the nation.

Most shops and businesses in San Cristobal, capital of Tachira state on the Colombian border, were closed and guarded by soldiers on Wednesday, though looting continued in some poorer sectors, residents said.

People made off with items including coffee, diapers, and cooking oil in the OPEC nation where a brutal economic crisis has made basic foods and medicine disappear from shelves.

Barricades of trash, car tires, and sand littered the streets, as daily life broke down in the city that was also a hotspot during the 2014 wave of unrest against leftist President Nicolas Maduro.

Hundreds of thousands of people have come onto the streets across Venezuela since early April to demand elections, freedom for jailed activists, foreign aid and autonomy for the opposition-led legislature.

Maduro’s government accuses them of seeking a violent coup and says many of the protesters are no more than “terrorists.” State oil company PDVSA also blamed roadblocks for pockets of gasoline shortages in the country on Wednesday.

In Tachira, teenager Jose Francisco Guerrero was shot dead during the spate of looting, his relatives said.

“My mom sent my brother yesterday to buy flour for dinner and a little while later, we received a call saying he’d been injured by a bullet,” said his sister Maria Contreras, waiting for his body to be brought to a San Cristobal morgue.

The state prosecutor’s office confirmed his death, which pushed the death toll in six weeks of unrest to at least 43, equal to that of the 2014 protests.

’21ST CENTURY JEWS’

With international pressure against Venezuela’s government mounting, the United Nations Security Council turned its attention to the country’s crisis for the first time on Wednesday.

“The intent of this briefing was to make sure everyone is aware of the situation … we’re not looking for Security Council action,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told reporters after the session.

“The international community needs to say, ‘Respect the human rights of your people or this is going to go in the direction we’ve seen so many others go’ … We have been down this road with Syria, with North Korea, with South Sudan, with Burundi, with Burma.”

Venezuela’s U.N. envoy Rafael Ramirez in turn accused the United States of seeking to topple the Maduro government.

“The U.S. meddling stimulates the action of violent groups in Venezuela,” he said, showing photos of vandalism and violence he said was caused by opposition supporters.

Venezuelans living abroad, many of whom fled the country’s economic chaos, have in recent weeks accosted visiting state officials and their family members.

Maduro on Tuesday likened that harassment to the treatment of Jews during the Holocaust under the Nazis.

“We are the new Jews of the 21st century that Hitler pursued,” Maduro said during the cabinet meeting. “We don’t carry the yellow star of David … we carry red hearts that are filled with desire to fight for human dignity. And we are going to defeat them, these 21st century Nazis.”

Venezuela’s main Jewish group, the Confederation of Israeli Associations in Venezuela, responded with a statement expressing its “absolute rejection” of “banal” comparisons with the Holocaust that killed six million Jews.

Social media has for weeks buzzed with videos of Venezuelan emigres in countries from Australia to the United States shouting insults at public officials and in some cases family members in public places.

Maduro’s critics say it is outrageous for officials to spend money on foreign travel when people are struggling to obtain food and children are dying for lack of basic medicines.

But some opposition sympathizers say such mob-like harassment is the wrong way to confront the government.

As night fell on Wednesday, thousands of opposition supporters poured onto the streets of different cities for rallies and vigils in honor of the fatalities during protests.

Many carried flags and candles.

“We’ve been in the street for more than 40 days because this government has broken every law, every human right, and we cannot bear it anymore,” said one demonstrator, Eugenia, who asked that her last name not be used.

“This rally is important because we have to retake the streets, we have been scared for too long,” she added, referring to the rampant violent crime that normally stops people from going out after dark.

For a graphic on Venezuela’s economic woes click https://urldefense.proofpoint.com/v2/url?u=http-3A__tmsnrt.rs_2pPJdRb&d=D

(Reporting by Anggy Polanco, additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea, Brian Ellsworth, Girish Gupta, Euridice Bandres and Andrew Cawthorne in Caracas, Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations in New York; Writing by Girish Gupta and Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Andrew Hay)

‘End the injustice’ pleads Venezuelan official’s son over unrest

Opposition supporters clash with security forces during a rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Alexandra Ulmer

CARACAS (Reuters) – The son of Venezuela’s pro-government human rights ombudsman has surprised the country amid major protests against the leftist administration by publicly urging his father to “end the injustice.”

The opposition has accused ombudsman Tarek Saab, whose title is “defender of the people,” of turning a blind eye to rights abuses and a lurch into dictatorship by unpopular President Nicolas Maduro.

Some 29 people have died during this month’s unrest.

In many of the vast street protests in Caracas in recent days, marchers aimed to converge on his office, but security forces firing tear gas and water cannons blocked them.

So Venezuelans were shocked to see Saab’s son, a law student, breaking ranks with his powerful father and saying he himself had been a victim of what he called government repression against marchers.

“Dad, in this moment you have the power to end the injustice that has sunk this country,” said Yibram Saab in a YouTube video late on Wednesday, sitting outside and reading from a paper.

“I ask you as your son, and in the name of Venezuela that you represent, that you reflect and do what you must do,” added the younger Saab.

His father’s support would be key to allowing lawmakers to open a case to remove the magistrates of the pro-government Supreme Court, who have overridden the opposition-led National Assembly.

In the video, Saab’s son said he suffered “brutal repression” from security forces on Wednesday, when a 20-year-old demonstrator was killed by a tear gas canister that hit him in the chest. “It could have been me,” said Yibram Saab.

The ombudsman, a former student leader who became a poet, lawyer, and Socialist Party governor, responded in a radio interview later on Thursday, saying he respected his son’s right of opinion and loved him just the same.

“I love him, I adore him, whatever he might have said,” he told La Romantica station, adding that he always defended rights and condemned violence no matter which side it came on.

Maduro’s son called on Saab’s son to reconsider.

The president’s son echoed the government stance that demonstrators are terrorists trying to instigate a coup amid the biggest protests since 2014.

“Your three minutes of fame could have been different. I think you could have picked up the phone and spoken with your father, expressing to him your love and concern and listening to him,” wrote Nicolas Maduro Guerra.

The government has long accused the opposition of attempting to stage a coup, citing a short-lived attempt in 2002 against former President Hugo Chavez.

Saab, a staunch Chavez ally, was himself detained for a few hours during that coup, according to rights groups.

OPPOSITION BOOST

Opposition leaders said the video was evidence of fissures within “Chavismo,” a movement founded by the charismatic Chavez that has taken a hit under Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader whose presidency has been marked by a stark recession.

The opposition hoped Saab’s video would spur protesters to keep up street action despite fatigue, injuries, arrests and no sign of concessions from Maduro.

“The majority of us want a change, and that includes the families of those who today prop up this regime,” tweeted opposition lawmaker Juan Andres Mejia.

Maduro’s opponents are demanding a general election, the release of jailed activists, humanitarian aid to help offset shortages of food and medicine, and autonomy for the legislature.

They have been galvanized by international condemnation of Maduro’s government and Caracas’ increasing diplomatic isolation.

In what might have been a pre-emptive move to avoid expulsion, Venezuela has said it will withdraw from the Organization of American States, the first nation to do so in the bloc’s more than century-old history.

The head of the regional body had said Venezuela could be expelled, accusing Maduro of eroding the country’s democracy by delaying elections and refusing to respect the legislature.

“Today, Venezuela woke up freer than yesterday,” Maduro said in a speech to a women’s meeting on Thursday. “OAS, go to hell!”

Communist ally Cuba, which has not returned to the OAS after being suspended from 1962-2009, backed Venezuela “in this new chapter of resistance and dignity.”

But the United States said it would like Venezuela to remain in the OAS, so long as it complies with requirements. Separately, President Donald Trump, a strong critic of Maduro, said the situation in Venezuela is “very sad.”

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini condemned the violence in Venezuela, sent condolences over the dead, and urged the government to both protect peaceful protesters and set “a clear electoral calendar”

(Additional reporting by Girish Gupta and Andrew Cawthorne in Caracas, Lesley Wroughton in Washington D.C. and Nelson Acosta in Havana; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, and Andrew Hay)

Hooded youths in Venezuela mar opposition efforts at peaceful protest

FILE PHOTO: Demonstrator sits next to a fire barricade on a street during a rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Christian Veron/File Photo

By Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – Protesters blocked a highway in Venezuela’s capital Caracas for nearly eight hours this week in an effort to show the opposition’s dedication to civil disobedience as their main tool to resist President Nicolas Maduro.

But by the end of the afternoon, hooded youths had filled the highway with burning debris, looted a government storage site, torched two trucks and stolen medical equipment from an ambulance.

“This is no peaceful protest, they’re damaging something that belongs to the state and could be used to help one of their own family members,” said Wilbani Leon, head of a paramedic team that services Caracas highways, showing the damage to the ambulance.

Anti-government demonstrations entering their fourth week are being marred by street violence despite condemnation by opposition leaders and clear instructions that the protests should be peaceful.

Such daytime violence also increasingly presages late-night looting of businesses in working-class areas of Caracas, a sign that political protests could extend into broad disruptions of public order driven by growing hunger.

The opposition’s so-far unsuccessful struggle to contain its violent factions has helped Maduro depict it as a group of thugs plotting to overthrow him the way opposition leaders briefly ousted late socialist leader Hugo Chavez in 2002.

CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE, VIOLENT PROTEST

The unrest has killed at least 29 people so far and was triggered by a Supreme Court decision in March to briefly assume powers of the opposition Congress. Maduro’s opponents say the former bus driver and union leader who took office four years ago has turned into a dictator.

The vast majority of demonstrators shun the violence that usually starts when marches are winding down or after security forces break up protests.

That gives way to small groups of protesters, many with faces covered, who set fire to trash and rip gates off private establishments or drag sheet metal from construction sites to build barricades.

They clash with security forces in confused melees. Police and troops break up the demonstrations by firing copious amounts of tear gas that often floods nearby apartment buildings and in some cases health clinics.

The opposition has blamed the disturbances on infiltrators planted by the ruling Socialist Party to delegitimize protests, which demand Maduro hold delayed elections and respect the autonomy of the opposition-run Congress.

But even before rallies devolve into street violence, tensions frequently surface between demonstrators seeking peaceful civil disobedience and those looking for confrontation – some of whom are ordinary Venezuelans angry over chronic product shortages and triple-digit inflation.

“If we just ask him ‘Mr. President, would you be so kind as to leave?’ he’s not going to leave,” said Hugo Nino, 38, who use to work at a bakery but lost his job after Maduro passed a resolution boosting state control over bread production.

“Resistance, protesting with anger, that’s how we have to do it,” he said.

He and some others at the Caracas highway sit-in on Monday morning bristled at opposition leaders’ calls for non-violence.

An unrelated group of people collected tree trunks and metal debris to barricade the road. They covered one section with oil, making it dangerous for police motorcycles to cross it.

TRUCKS ON FIRE

By 4 p.m., opposition legislators had started walking through the crowd with megaphones, asking that people leave the protest as had been planned.

The thinning crowd remained calm until a tear gas canister was heard being fired in the distance. Demonstrators reacted by banging on a metal highway barrier with pipes and rocks.

A small group then broke into a government compound that houses cargo trucks and highway-repair materials, and made off with cables, pipes and wooden pallets and other materials for barricades.

The team of paramedics that works in the unguarded compound did nothing to stop them, out of what they said was concern for their personal safety. They did halt two youths trying to steal a car with an eye toward setting it alight.

The demonstrators later set fire to two cargo trucks.

One teenager, stripped from the waist up and with a t-shirt covering his face, urged nearby reporters to take pictures of the blaze but drew the line at appearing himself.

“Delete that video,” he said, pointing to a Reuters reporter filming him.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer; Christian Plumb and Andrew Hay)

Eight electrocuted in Caracas looting amid Venezuela protests: firefighter

Police fire tear gas toward opposition supporters during clashes while rallying against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, April 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Eyanir Chinea and Efrain Otero

CARACAS (Reuters) – Eight people were electrocuted to death during a looting incident in Caracas, a firefighter said on Friday, amid violent protests against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro by opponents accusing him of seeking to create a dictatorship.

The accident occurred when a group of looters broke into a bakery in the working class neighborhood of El Valle, according the firefighter, who asked not be identified. It was not immediately possible to confirm details of the incident with hospital or other officials.

The public prosecutor’s office said later on Friday it was investigating 11 deaths in El Valle, adding that “some” victims had died from being electrocuted.

Nine other people have been killed in violence associated with a wave of anti-government demonstrations in the past three weeks in which protesters have clashed with security forces in melees lasting well into the night.

“Yesterday around 9 or 10 (p.m.)things got pretty scary, a group of people carrying weapons came down … and started looting,” said Hane Mustafa, owner of a small supermarket in El Valle, where broken bottles of soy sauce and ketchup littered the floor between bare shelves.

“The security situation is not in the hands of the government. We lost everything here,” said Mustafa, who said he could hear the looting from his home, which is adjacent to the store.

Dozens of businesses in the area showed signs of looting, ranging from empty shelves to broken windows and twisted metal entrance gates.

The Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for details.

Security forces patrolled much of Caracas on Friday, including El Valle.

Maduro’s government is so far resisting the pressure of the most serious protests in three years as opposition leaders push a series of political demands, drawing support from a public angered by the country’s collapsing economy.

Ruling Socialist Party leaders describe the protesters as hoodlums who are damaging public property and disrupting public order to overthrow the government with the support of ideological adversaries in Washington.

“This wounded and failed opposition is trying to generate chaos in key areas of the city and convince the world that we’re in some sort of civil war, the same playbook used for Syria, for Libya and for Iraq,” said Socialist Party official Freddy Bernal in an internet broadcast at 1:00 a.m.

‘WE’RE HUNGRY’

Opposition leaders have promised to keep up their protests, demanding that Maduro’s government call general elections, free almost 100 jailed opposition activists and respect the autonomy of the opposition-led Congress.

They are calling for community-level protests across the country on Friday, a white-clad “silent” march in Caracas on Saturday to commemorate those killed in the unrest, and a nationwide “sit-in” blocking Venezuela’s main roads on Monday.

Daniela Alvarado, 25, who sells vegetables in the El Valle area, said the looting on Thursday night began after police officers fired tear gas and buckshot at demonstrators blocking a street with burning tires.

“People starting looting the businesses and yelling that they were hungry and that they want the government out,” said Alvarado. “We’re afraid (the stores) are going to run out of everything, that tomorrow there won’t be any food.”

Separately, a man was killed by a gunshot in the Caracas slum of Petare on Thursday night, municipal mayor Carlos Ocariz said on Friday.

The OPEC nation’s economy has been in free-fall since the collapse of oil prices in 2014. The generous oil-financed welfare state created by late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s predecessor, has given way to a Soviet-style economy marked by consumer shortages, triple-digit inflation and snaking supermarket lines.

Many Venezuelans say they have to skip meals in order to feed their children.

Public anger at the situation spilled over last month when the Supreme Court, which is seen as close to the government, briefly assumed the powers of the Congress. The protests were further fueled when the government barred the opposition’s best-known leader, two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, from holding public office.

(Additional reporting by Carlos Garcia and Brian Ellsworth; Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Frances Kerry)

Hundreds arrested in Venezuela cash chaos, vigilantes protect shops

People clash with Venezuelan National Guards as they try to cross the border to Colombia over the Francisco de Paula Santander international bridge in Urena, Venezuela

By Andrew Cawthorne and Corina Pons

CARACAS (Reuters) – Security forces have arrested more than 300 people during protests and lootings over the elimination of Venezuela’s largest currency bill, President Nicolas Maduro said on Sunday.

The socialist leader pulled the 100 bolivar note this week before new bills were in circulation, creating a national cash shortage on top of the brutal economic crisis overshadowing Venezuelans’ Christmas and New Year holidays.

After two days of unrest over the measure – including one death and dozens of shops ransacked – Maduro on Saturday postponed the measure until Jan. 2.

That helped stem violence, though there were still reports of more lootings in southern Ciudad Bolivar on Sunday.

The detainees include leaders and members of the opposition Popular Will and Justice First parties, Maduro said on state TV, accusing them of following U.S. instructions to incite chaos.

Venezuelan National Guards clash with demonstrators in La Fria, Venezuela

Venezuelan National Guards clash with demonstrators in La Fria, Venezuela December 17, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

“Don’t come and tell me they are political prisoners … They are the two parties of the ‘gringos’ in Venezuela,” he added, accusing President Barack Obama of wanting to engineer a coup against socialism in Venezuela before leaving office.

From Venezuela’s southern jungle and savannah to the Andean highlands in the west, groups of hundreds of protesters have been burning bolivar notes, cursing Maduro and decrying scarcities of food and medicines.

The worst looting was on Friday and Saturday, especially in El Callao and Ciudad Bolivar in the southern state of Bolivar, and police have used teargas to control crowds in some places.

Chinese-run shops have been particularly targeted, witnesses say, and a 14-year-old boy was shot dead in El Callao on Friday.

The governor of Bolivar state said there were 262 arrests there, with lootings from food shops to science laboratories. The local business group said 350 businesses had been ransacked in Ciudad Bolivar, including 90 percent of food outlets.

In Santa Elena de Uairen, near the border with Brazil, shopkeepers and inhabitants formed vigilante groups to join police and soldiers after six shops were ransacked on Saturday.

“We’re not lowering our guard, we’re forming protection brigades,” said local business group leader Gilmer Poma.

Food prices were reduced in some establishments in Santa Elena as a way to defuse tensions.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks next to children toys during his weekly broadcast "En contacto con Maduro" (In contact with Maduro) at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro speaks next to children toys during his weekly broadcast “En contacto con Maduro” (In contact with Maduro) at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela December 18, 2016. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS

‘CRUEL JOKE’

Maduro, a 54-year-old former bus driver and foreign minister who replaced Hugo Chavez in 2013, has seen his popularity plunge during a three-year recession. He justified the currency measure as a way of suffocating mafia on Venezuela’s borders.

But opponents say it is further evidence of disastrous economic policy in a nation reeling from runaway prices and shortages of basics. They want him to resign.

“The only person guilty of the chaos and violence of recent days is Nicolas Maduro,” the Justice First party said, accusing intelligence agents of taking advantage of the situation to frame opposition leaders with false evidence.

With the 100 bolivar bill originally out of circulation from Friday, many Venezuelans had found themselves unable to purchase food or fill up cars in the busy run-up to Christmas.

“As if we don’t have enough to cope with anyway, now they inflict this craziness on us,” said a grandmother in Caracas, Zoraida Gutierrez, 74, who spent a day lining up under the sun to deposit cash she had under her bed.

“It’s like a cruel joke.”

Despite Maduro’s suspension of the measure on Saturday, some businesses were still refusing the notes on Sunday.

Maduro has been urging Venezuelans to use electronic transactions instead of cash where possible, but 40 percent of the country’s 30 million people are without bank accounts.

State TV showed a plane arriving on Sunday afternoon with a first batch of new currency notes. Central Bank Vice President Jose Khan said they were 13.5 million 500 bolivar bills.

The government is introducing larger bills of up to 20,000.

With many people already skipping meals to get by and forced to sacrifice traditional Christmas food and presents, this week’s confusion has further exasperated many.

Maduro’s popularity recently hit a record low of under 20 percent, according to local pollster Datanalisis.

But Venezuelan authorities thwarted an opposition push this year for a referendum to remove him. That put Maduro on track to finish his term in early 2019 but increased the potential for social unrest due to the lack of an immediate electoral outlet.

(Additional reporting by María Ramírez in Ciudad Bolivar; Editing by Mary Milliken)

Pockets of protests, looting in Venezuela as cash dries up

Venezuelan National Guard members control the crowd as people queue to deposit their 100 bolivar notes, near Venezuela's Central Bank in Caracas, Venezuela

By Anggy Polanco and Maria Ramirez

EL PINAL/CIUDAD GUAYANA, Venezuela (Reuters) – Small protests and looting broke out in some Venezuelan provinces on Friday due to lack of cash after the socialist government suddenly decreed this week that its largest banknote would be pulled from circulation in the midst of a punishing economic crisis.

President Nicolas Maduro on Sunday gave Venezuelans a few days to ditch the 100-bolivar bills, arguing the measure was needed to combat mafias on the Colombia border despite warnings from some economists that it risked sparking chaos.

Venezuela’s opposition says this latest measure is further evidence that Maduro is destroying the economy and must be removed. Authorities have blocked a vote against the leftist leader, however, leaving social unrest as a possible wild card in the volatile country.

With new bills, originally due on Thursday, still nowhere to be seen, many Venezuelans on Friday were unable to fill their car tank to get to work, buy breakfast, or get gifts ahead of Christmas.

Many cash machines were broken or empty, shops struggled to be paid, and tips vanished.

“We feel this is a mockery,” said bus driver Richard Montilva as he and some 400 others blocked a street outside a bank in the town of El Pinal in Tachira state near Colombia.

Maduro held up the new bills during a televised broadcast on Thursday night and said they would come into circulation soon. But there was increasing nervousness on the streets that the notes were not ready.

The circulation of the new notes “is a mystery to us too,” said a source at the central bank, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Outside the central bank in Caracas on Friday, thousands of Venezuelans queued up to swap their 100 bolivar bills before a final Tuesday deadline under the watch of National Guard soldiers. One orange and avocado vendor offered to buy them up for 80 bolivars.

Maduro’s shock decision is stoking anger among weary Venezuelans who have for years already stood in long lines for food and medicine amid product shortages and triple-digit inflation.

Six businesses in the isolated Bolivar state were looted on Friday after stores refused to accept the soon-to-be defunct bills, said the mayor of El Callao, Coromoto Lugo, who belongs to the opposition.

Maduro blames the crisis on an “economic war” waged against his government to weaken the bolivar currency and unseat him. Critics scoff at that explanation, pointing instead to state controls and excessive money printing.

“I want a change in government. I don’t care about changing the bills; they’re not worth anything anyway,” said Isabel Gonzalez, 62, standing in line at the central bank on Friday.

She said she had just enough cash to get a bus home.

(Additional reporting by Girish Gupta and Alexandra Ulmer in Caracas; Editing by Mary Milliken)