Remains of hundreds of Jews unearthed in Nazi-era mass grave in Belarus

A soldier from a special "search battalion" of Belarus Defence Ministry takes part in the exhumation of a mass grave containing the remains of about 730 prisoners of a former Jewish ghetto, discovered at a construction site in the centre of Brest, Belarus February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

BREST, Belarus (Reuters) – Soldiers in Belarus have unearthed the bones of hundreds of people shot during World War Two from a mass grave discovered at the site of a ghetto where Jews lived under the Nazis.

The grave was uncovered by chance last month on a construction site in a residential area in the center of Brest near the Polish border.

A soldier from a special "search battalion" of Belarus Defence Ministry takes part in the exhumation of a mass grave containing the remains of about 730 prisoners of a former Jewish ghetto, discovered at a construction site in the centre of Brest, Belarus February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

A soldier from a special “search battalion” of Belarus Defence Ministry takes part in the exhumation of a mass grave containing the remains of about 730 prisoners of a former Jewish ghetto, discovered at a construction site in the centre of Brest, Belarus February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

Soldiers wearing white masks on Tuesday sifted through the site with spades, trowels and their gloved hands to collect the bones. They also found items such as leather shoes that had not rotted.

Dmitry Kaminsky, a soldier leading the unit, said they had exhumed 730 bodies so far, but could not be sure how many more would be found.

“It’s possible they go further under the road. We have to cut open the tarmac road. Then we’ll know,” he said.

Some of the skulls bore bullet holes, he said, suggesting the victims had been executed by a shot to the back of the head.

Belarus, a former Soviet republic, was occupied by Nazi Germany during World War Two and tens of thousands of its Jews were killed by the Nazis.

The site of the mass grave served from December 1941 to October 1942 as part of a ghetto, areas created by the Nazis to segregate Jews and sometimes other minorities from other city dwellers. Brest was part of Poland before the war.

The remains were discovered when builders began to lay the foundations for an apartment block.

Local authorities want to bury the bodies in a ceremony at a cemetery in the north of the city.

“We want to be sure that there are no more mass graves here,” said Alla Kondak, a local culture official.

(Reporting by Reuters TV; writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by Robin Pomeroy)

U.S. to host Iran-focused global summit in Poland Feb. 13-14

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is greeted by Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa after arriving at Manama International Airport in Manama, Bahrain, Jan. 11, 2019. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States plans to jointly host a global summit focused on the Middle East, particularly Iran, next month in Poland, the U.S. State Department said on Friday.

The gathering will take place in Warsaw from Feb. 13 to Feb. 14, it said in a statement.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News in an interview to air on Friday that the meeting would “focus on Middle East stability and peace and freedom and security here in this region, and that includes an important element of making sure that Iran is not a destabilizing influence.”

Pompeo said the meeting would “bring together dozens of countries from all around the world, from Asia, from Africa, from Western Hemisphere countries, Europe too, the Middle East of course.”

The State Department did not immediately respond when asked which countries would attend. Its statement said there were strong shared interests in Middle East stability.

“The ministerial will address a range of critical issues including terrorism and extremism, missile development and proliferation, maritime trade and security, and threats posed by proxy groups across the region,” it said.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s top diplomat is visiting a number of Middle Eastern countries this week in an effort to shore up support in the region on a number of fronts, from the U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria to the Saudi-Qatar rift to the killing of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Pompeo, in the middle of his eight-day trip through the region, has said the United States is “redoubling” its efforts to put pressure on Iran and sought to convince allies in the region that it was committed to fighting Islamic State despite Trump’s recent decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria.

Pompeo told Fox News the summit would include representatives from countries around the world to address Iran’s regional influence as the Trump administration has sought to pressure Tehran.

Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 Iran nuclear accord and moved to reimpose sanctions on Tehran, even as other partners in the deal – including China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom – have sought to maintain the agreement.

In a shift earlier this week, the European Union moved to impose some sanctions on Iran.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and David Brunnstrom in Washington and Lesley Wroughton in Cairo; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe, Susan Thomas and Jonathan Oatis)

Exhibition depicting death camp survivor’s trauma opens at Auschwitz

A man looks at a painting during the opening of an exhibition featuring works by David Olere, a prisoner in Auschwitz concentration camp, at the museum in Oswiecim, Poland October 30, 2018. Picture taken October 30, 2018. Agencja Gazeta/Jakub Porzycki via REUTERS

OSWIECIM, Poland (Reuters) – David Olere, a former Auschwitz prisoner who helped dispose of bodies at the Nazi death camp, depicted his trauma of the horrors he witnessed in haunting drawings and paintings.

Paintings are pictured during the opening of an exhibition featuring works by David Olere, a prisoner in Auschwitz concentration camp, at the museum in Oswiecim, Poland October 30, 2018. Agencja Gazeta/Jakub Porzycki via REUTERS

Paintings are pictured during the opening of an exhibition featuring works by David Olere, a prisoner in Auschwitz concentration camp, at the museum in Oswiecim, Poland October 30, 2018. Agencja Gazeta/Jakub Porzycki via REUTERS

Now more than 80 of those artworks have gone on display at an exhibition at the Auschwitz Memorial in Oswiecim, Poland.

“David Olere: The One Who Survived Crematorium III,” shows the extermination process which took place at Auschwitz during the Holocaust through the late painter’s own eyes.

A French Jew of Polish descent, Olere was part of a special unit of male Jewish prisoners, dubbed the Sonderkommando, chosen by the Nazis to discard the bodies of those killed in gas chambers.

“He is the only witness who documented this unimaginable cruelty in the form of paintings and drawings,” Agnieszka Sieradzka, an art historian at the Museum Collections and one of the curators of the exhibition, said in a press release.

Born in Warsaw in 1902, Olere studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in the Polish capital before eventually settling in Paris. He was arrested in 1943 and deported to Auschwitz, one of several concentration camps operated by the Nazis on Polish soil during the Holocaust in which some six million Jews were killed.

Marc Oler, David Olere's grandson attends the opening of an exhibition featuring works by David Olere, a prisoner in Auschwitz concentration camp, at the museum in Oswiecim, Poland October 30, 2018. Agencja Gazeta/Jakub Porzycki via REUTERS

Marc Oler, David Olere’s grandson attends the opening of an exhibition featuring works by David Olere, a prisoner in Auschwitz concentration camp, at the museum in Oswiecim, Poland October 30, 2018. Agencja Gazeta/Jakub Porzycki via REUTERS

His grandson Marc Oler described the artist, who died in 1985, as “very, very tough, very, very talented, very, very traumatized”.

“David Olere wanted the next generation to be aware so they could be … (spared) the horrors that he had been through and know peace,” Oler, who attended the exhibition’s opening on Tuesday, said.

The exhibition, which runs until March, displays its own collection of Olere’s artwork as well as many others on loan from Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and France’s Memorial de la Shoah.

(Reporting by Reuters Television and Joanna Plucinska; Editing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian)

Polish lawmakers back Holocaust bill, drawing Israeli outrage, U.S. concern

Israel's Ambassador to Poland, Anna Azari, is seen after a meeting with Poland's Senate Marshal Stanislaw Karczewski, in Warsaw, Poland January 31, 2018.

By Justyna Pawlak and Lidia Kelly

WARSAW (Reuters) – Polish lawmakers approved a bill on Thursday that would impose jail terms for suggesting Poland was complicit in the Holocaust, drawing concern from the United States and outrage from Israel, which denounced “any attempt to challenge historical truth”.

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) says the bill is needed to protect Poland’s reputation and ensure historians recognize that Poles as well as Jews perished under the Nazis. Israeli officials said it criminalizes basic historical facts.

The Senate voted on the bill in the early hours on Thursday and it will now be sent to President Andrzej Duda for signature.

“We, the Poles, were victims, as were the Jews,” Deputy Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, a senior PiS figure and supporter of the law, said on Wednesday before the vote. “It is a duty of every Pole to defend the good name of Poland. Just as the Jews, we were victims.”

Under the proposed legislation, violators would face three years in prison for mentioning the term “Polish death camps”, although the bill says scientific research into World War Two would not be constrained.

Israel “adamantly opposes” the bill’s approval, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said on Thursday.

“Israel views with utmost gravity any attempt to challenge historical truth. No law will change the facts,” ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said on Twitter.

Israeli Housing Minister Yoav Galant, one of several cabinet ministers to denounce the bill, told Israel’s Army Radio that he considered it “de facto Holocaust denial”.

The bill has come at a time when rightwing, anti-immigrant parties like PiS have been in the ascendancy in Europe, especially in the former Communist countries of the east. EU officials have expressed alarm over the PiS administration in Poland, which they say has undermined the rule of law by exerting pressure over the courts and media.

The ruling PiS, a socially conservative, nationalist group, has reignited debate on the Holocaust as part of a campaign to fuel patriotism since sweeping into power in 2015.

The U.S. State Department said the legislation “could undermine free speech and academic discourse”.

“We are also concerned about the repercussions this draft legislation, if enacted, could have on Poland’s strategic interests and relationships,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

Piotr Buras, head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank, told Reuters it was likely to push Poland further toward nationalism and isolation.

“The president will have to sign it – otherwise it would mean he is giving into international pressure. But the external criticism will, of course, push the government further into the position of a besieged fortress, strengthening both the nationalistic rhetoric…and the nationalistic mood in the country.”

PAINFUL DEBATE

Poland had Europe’s largest Jewish population when it was invaded by both Germany and the Soviet Union at the start of World War Two. It became ground zero for the “Final Solution”, Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jews.

More than three million of Poland’s 3.2 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, accounting for around half of the Jews killed in the Holocaust. Jews from across Europe were sent to be killed at death camps built and operated by the Germans on Polish soil, including Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor.

According to figures from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Germans also killed at least 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish civilians.

Many thousands of Poles risked their lives to protect their Jewish neighbors; Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust center recognizes 6,706 Poles as “righteous among nations” for bravery in resisting the Holocaust, more than any other nationality.

But Poland has also gone through a painful public debate in recent years about guilt and reconciliation over the Holocaust, after the publication of research showing some Poles participated in the Nazi German atrocities. Many Poles have refused to accept such findings, which have challenged a national narrative that the country was solely a victim.

A 2017 survey by the Polish Center for Research on Prejudice showed that more than 55 percent of Poles were “annoyed” by talk of Polish participation in crimes against Jews.

Poland has long sought to discourage use of the term “Polish camps” to refer to Nazi camps on its territory, arguing that the phrase implies complicity.

European Council President Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister and political foe of the PiS, said the bill had the opposite of its intended effect, tarnishing Poland’s name and encouraging the view of history it aimed to criminalize.

“Anyone who spreads a false statement about ‘Polish camps’ harms the good name and interests of Poland,” Tusk said on his private Twitter account. “The authors of the bill have promoted this vile slander all over the world, effectively as nobody has before.”

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams in JERUSALEM, Mohammad Zargham in WASHINGTON, Gabriela Baczynska in BRUSSELS and Marcin Goettig in WARSAW; Writing by Justyna Pawlak and Lidia Kelly; Editing by Peter Graff)

Russia seeks to reassure over war games, denies invasion plans

FILE PHOTO: Servicemen take part in the joint war games Zapad-2013 (West-2013), attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin and President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko, at the Khmelevka range on Russia's Baltic Sea in the Kaliningrad Region, September 26, 2013. REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

By Andrew Osborn and Maria Tsvetkova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia tried to calm fears over war games it plans to hold next month, saying on Tuesday the large-scale exercise would rehearse a purely defensive scenario and that allegations it was a springboard to invade Poland, Lithuania or Ukraine were false.

The Zapad-2017 war games next month have stirred unease in some countries because Russian troops and military hardware will be training inside Belarus, a Russian ally which borders Ukraine as well as NATO member states Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.

Russia has used such exercises in the past as a precursor or as a cover to project force in other countries such as Georgia and Ukraine, and the war games are taking place at a time when East-West tensions are high.

Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the U.S. Army’s top general in Europe, told Reuters last month that U.S. allies in eastern Europe and Ukraine were worried the exercises could be a “Trojan horse” aimed at leaving behind military equipment brought into Belarus.

And NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who has warned that “substantially more” troops may take part than will be officially divulged, said last week the alliance would be watching closely.

Russian Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin told Western military attaches in Moscow on Tuesday the West had nothing to fear.

“Some people are even going as far as to say that the Zapad-2017 exercises will be used as a springboard to invade and occupy Lithuania, Poland or Ukraine,” said Fomin.

“Not a single one of these paradoxical versions has anything to do with reality.” He called suggestions that Russia posed a threat to anyone “myths”.

The drills, which will be held from Sept. 14 to 20 in Belarus, western Russia and Russia’s exclave of Kaliningrad, will simulate repelling an attack by extremist groups.

“As well as its anti-terrorist backdrop, the Zapad-2017 exercise is of a purely defensive nature,” said Fomin, who said the drills were routine and conducted with ally Belarus every two years.

Moscow says almost 13,000 Russian and Belarussian servicemen will take part, as well as around 70 planes and helicopters. Almost 700 pieces of military hardware will be deployed, including almost 250 tanks, 10 ships and various artillery and rocket systems.

Russia said the scale of the exercise was in line with international rules. With less than 13,000 troops, international observation of the drills was not mandatory, it said.

Belarussian Deputy Defence Minister Oleg Belokonev, speaking in Minsk, said any troops and equipment brought into Belarus for the war games would be withdrawn afterwards.

(Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov and Maria Kiselyova in Moscow and by Andrey Makhovsky in Minsk; Editing by Andrew Roche)

Poland to allocate additional $55 bllion on defense by 2032: deputy minister

FILE PHOTO: Polish troops parade during National Army Day parade in Warsaw, Poland August 15, 2016. Agencja Gazeta/Slawomir Kaminski/via REUTERS

By Lidia Kelly

WARSAW (Reuters) – Poland will allocate an additional 200 billion zlotys ($55 billion) on defense over the next 15 years to modernize its army amid signs of growing aggression from Russia, a deputy defense minister said.

Russia’s Zapad military exercises next month in Belarus and western Russia, the largest in years, have raised concerns for their lack of transparency, with NATO worried the official number of troops participating might be understated.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will visit Poland on Thursday and Friday to check on deployment of U.S. troops in the east of the country and to meet Polish, Romanian and Turkish government officials.

Poland, alarmed by what it sees as Russia’s assertiveness on NATO’s eastern flank, has lobbied hard for the stationing of NATO troops on its soil, especially since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

“The government has approved a legislative amendment … which gives us nearly 200 billion zlotys over the next 15 years,” deputy defense minister Tomasz Szatkowski said, adding that this was in line with plans to raise defense spending gradually to reach 2.5 percent of gross domestic product.

“This is not a trivial amount,” he told Reuters in an interview.

The Polish government agreed in June to raise defense spending gradually from 2 pct to 2.5 percent of GDP. This means that annual spending would nearly double to about 80 billion zlotys by 2032.

HARD CHOICES

Szatkowski, architect of a new national concept for defense, said that although the ministry would be getting almost all the money needed to implement the strategy, some “hard choices” will have to be made.

The plan is to increase the size of the army nearly twofold and revamp the equipment. Nearly two-thirds of equipment dates from the Soviet era when the country was in the Moscow-led Warsaw Pact.

The navy, though, will fare less well from modernization. The ministry has canceled the purchase of two classes of surface vessels, including multi-task frigates used to protect other warships.

“We cannot afford to expand the transport fleet,” Szatkowski said. Higher spending on artillery, engineering or assault helicopters will come at the cost of expanding the airborne forces.

Warsaw plans to acquire fifth-generation fighter jets, but Szatkowski said that this would not happen until the second half of the next decade.

Szatkowski defended the spending plans which have been criticized as “unrealistic”.

“Nobody can release from us the obligation of planning and creating a coherent vision and proving there is money for it – something that is happening for the first time on such a scope in the history of Polish defense planning,” he said.

(Writing by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Two girl scouts, three other people die in storms in Poland

Two girl scouts, three other people die in storms in Poland

WARSAW (Reuters) – Five people, including two teenage girl scouts, died and more than 30 were injured as a result of falling trees in a series of severe storms that hit Poland overnight.

The girls, 13 and 14, were crushed by falling trees while sleeping in a tent when a storm hit their campground late on Friday in the Tuchola Forest in northern Poland, according to the Regional Crisis Management Team office in Gdansk.

Some 20 scouts were injured and taken to local hospitals.

Adam Kralisz, chairman of the Lodz Region of the Scouting Association of the Republic (Poland), where the scouts were from, told the private Polsat television that evacuation was ordered immediately, but conditions were horrendous.

“We had to force our way for kilometers through the forest, among falling trees,” he said.

Three other victims also died as a result of falling trees and 10 people were injured in separate incidents in Poland’s north.

More than 170,000 people were left without power and 800 buildings were damaged in storms that hit mostly Poland’s north and west, according to the Regional Crisis Management Team in Gdansk.

More storms were expected on Saturday and warnings of severe weather conditions were issued for a number of regions amid unusually high for Poland temperatures that on Friday reached 35 to 38 Celsius.

An emergency meeting of the government’s Crisis Management Team was called on Saturday and Prime Minister Beata Szydlo promised to help all those in need.

Grzegorz Nowik, head of the Scouting Association of the Republic (Poland), ordered a month of mourning for the organization.

(Reporting by Lidia Kelly and Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk; Writing by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Stephen Powell)

Trump again demands more NATO spending, mulls ‘severe things’ on North Korea

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks as Polish President Andrzej Duda and Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic listen during the Three Seas Initiative Summit in Warsaw, Poland July 6, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Marcin Goclowski and Roberta Rampton

WARSAW (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump once more urged NATO allies in Europe on Thursday to spend more on defense, on a visit to Poland that had been billed as an opportunity for him to patch up relations after a tense alliance summit in May.

He also said Washington was thinking about “severe things” in response to North Korea’s test-launch this week of an intercontinental ballistic missile with the potential to reach Alaska.

Trump told a joint news conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda on Thursday that it was “past time” for all countries in the alliance to “get going” on their financial obligations.

The White House had said Trump would use the stopover in Warsaw to showcase his commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which he once called “obsolete”, bemoaning allies’ repeated failure to spend the recommended 2 percent of GDP on defense.

He had unnerved allies in May, not least those in the east concerned about Russia’s more assertive military posture, by failing to explicitly endorse the principle of collective defense enshrined in the NATO treaty.

While he did not directly mention that principle in Warsaw, he did say that the United States was working with Poland to address Russia’s “destabilising behavior”. Duda for his part said he believed Trump took Poland’s security seriously.

Trump said the United States would confront the threat from North Korea very strongly, and that nations must publicly demonstrate to North Korea that there were consequences for bad behavior.

Trump has this week expressed frustration that North Korea’s neighbor China has not put more pressure on Pyongyang, notably through trade, to try to rein in its weapons program.

Trump said “something” would have to be done about North Korea. He said he did not draw “red lines”, but that Washington would take a look over the coming weeks and months with regard to North Korea.

En route to a potentially fractious G20 summit in Germany, Trump was due to take part in a gathering of leaders from central Europe, Baltic states and the Balkans, an event convened by Poland and Croatia to boost regional trade and infrastructure.

Trump said the United States strongly backed their “Three Seas” initiative.

(Writing by Kevin Liffey; editing by Ralph Boulton)

Poland did not invite refugees, has right to say ‘no’: Kaczynski

Leader of ruling party Jaroslaw Kaczynski gestures during a Law and Justice party congress in Przysucha, Poland July 1, 2017. Agencja Gazeta/Slawomir Kaminski via REUTERS

WARSAW (Reuters) – Poland has a moral right to say ‘no’ to refugees, the country’s most powerful politician said on Saturday.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of the ruling party Law and Justice (PiS), gave his views on immigration at a party convention in Przysucha, 100 km (60 miles) south of Warsaw.

“We have not exploited the countries from which these refugees are coming to Europe these days, we have not used their labor force and finally we have not invited them to Europe. We have a full moral right to say ‘no’,” Kaczynski said in a speech broadcast on television.

Last month the European Commission launched a legal case against Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic for refusing to take in asylum seekers, highlighting the feud within the 28-nation bloc over how to deal with migration.

Kaczynski, who has criticized the European Union’s relocation schemes for migrants on many occasions, also said that the PiS could not be accused of being anti-European, as it backed Poland’s joining the block in 2004 and now appreciates the inflow of EU funds.

“The fact that we appreciate them (the funds), does not mean that we have lost the right to various assessments, including those regarding the historical context,” Kaczynski said, adding that Poland has never received any compensation for the losses it suffered during the Second World War.

During his 70-minute speech, the PiS leader suggested the government increase social spending if the economic situation allows. He also said there was a need to reduce the share of foreign capital in the media sector.

(Reporting by Agnieszka Barteczko and Pawel Sobczak; Editing by Stephen Powell)

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)