Iran stages pro-government rallies, cleric urges firm punishment for protest leaders

By Parisa Hafezi

ANKARA (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of government supporters rallied across Iran on Friday, swearing allegiance to the clerical establishment and accusing arch enemy the United States of instigating the largest anti-government protests in nearly a decade, state TV reported.

Tehran’s Friday prayer leader called on authorities to deal “firmly” with those responsible for igniting over a week of illegal rallies, in which 22 people were killed and more than 1,000 people were arrested, according to Iranian officials.

“But those ordinary Iranians who were deceived by these American-backed rioters should be dealt with based on Islamic clemency,” cleric Ahmad Khatami told worshippers at Tehran university, TV reported.

Khatami also called on the government to “pay more attention to people’s economic problems.”

The anti-government rallies erupted on December 28 in Iran’s holy Shi’ite city of Mashhad after the government announced plans to increase fuel prices and dismantle monthly cash handout to lower-income Iranians.

The protests spread to more than 80 cities and rural towns, staged by thousands of young and working class Iranians angry about official corruption, unemployment and a deepening gap between rich and poor.

The authorities have produced no evidence of U.S. involvement in the protests, which lacked a unifying leader.

GUARDS QUELLED UNREST

But in Moscow, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Iran’s statements that external influences fomented the unrest were not groundless and Washington used any possible method to destabilize governments it disliked.

He added that U.S. calls for an extraordinary meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss the turmoil in Iran interfered with the country’s sovereignty, news agency Interfax said. The Council will meet on Friday at 3 p.m. (2000 GMT) to discuss Iran, Council president Kazakhstan has said.

Residents contacted by Reuters in various cities said the protests had shown sign of abating since Thursday, after the establishment intensified a crackdown on the protesters by dispatching Revolutionary Guards forces to several provinces.

Iran’s elite Guards and its affiliated Basij militia suppressed the country’s 2009 unrest over alleged election fraud, in which dozens of pro-reform Iranians were killed.

Iranian officials said the protests were the result of foreign instigation and mocked U.S. President Donald Trump’s support of protesters against what he called a “brutal and corrupt” establishment.

On Friday rallies, protesters chanted “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”, carrying pictures of Iran’s top authority Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and waved Iranian flags.

Television footage of rallies in several cities showed people chanting “We support Imam Khamenei … We will not leave him alone in his fight against enemies”.

“Demonstrators demand the punishment of those behind foreign-linked riots which insulted religion and our authorities,” state television reported, referring to the anti-government protests in which social media footage showed protesters tearing down pictures of Khamenei.

Khatami also called on the government to “pay more attention to people’s economic problems.”

UNITED FRONT

To allay tension, the government has suspended its plans to cut cash handouts and increase fuel prices.

“There are workers who say they have not received their salaries for months … These problems should be resolved,” Khatami said, according to state TV.

Fearing that further unrest could undermine the Islamic republic altogether, Iran’s faction-ridden political elite has displayed a united front.

But Khamenei and his hardline allies have criticized Rouhani for failing to revive the economy after most sanctions on Iran were lifted in 2016 under a nuclear deal reached between Tehran and major powers aimed at curbing the country’s nuclear program.

Rouhani secured the deal in 2015, raising hopes of better economic times among many Iranians, but discontent has since risen over the lack of broad improvement in living standards.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi, Editing by William Maclean)

Iranian protesters attack police stations, raise stakes in unrest

Opponents of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani hold a protest outside the Iranian embassy in west London, Britain December 31, 2017.

By Michael Georgy

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iranian protesters attacked police stations late into the night on Monday, news agency and social media reports said, as security forces struggled to contain the boldest challenge to the clerical leadership since unrest in 2009.

Videos on social media showed an intense clash in the central town of Qahderijan between security forces and protesters who were trying to occupy a police station, which was partially set ablaze. There were unconfirmed reports of several casualties among demonstrators.

In the western city of Kermanshah, protesters set fire to a traffic police post, but no one was hurt in the incident, Mehr news agency said.

Demonstrations continued for a fifth day. Some 13 people were reported killed on Sunday in the worst wave of unrest since crowds took to the streets in 2009 to condemn the re-election of then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The protests have put pressure on the clerical leaders in power since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. President Hassan Rouhani made a televised call for calm on Sunday, saying Iranians had the right to criticize but must not cause unrest.

In the central city of Najafabad, a demonstrator opened fire on police with a hunting rifle, killing one and wounding three others, state television said.

Earlier, state TV said armed demonstrators on Sunday had tried to seize police and military bases but were stopped by “strong resistance from security forces.” It gave no further details and there was no independent confirmation.

State TV had reported that 10 people were killed in protests on Sunday. On Monday, that death toll rose when the deputy governor of the western Hamadan Province, Saeed Shahrokhi, told ISNA news agency that another three protesters were killed on Sunday in the city of Tuyserkan.

“NO TOLERANCE”

Hundreds have been arrested, according to officials and social media. Online video showed police in the capital Tehran firing water cannon to disperse demonstrators, in footage said to have been filmed on Sunday.

Protests against economic hardships and alleged corruption erupted in Iran’s second city of Mashhad on Thursday and escalated across the country into calls for the religious establishment to step down.

Some of the anger was directed at Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, breaking a taboo surrounding the man who has been supreme leader of Iran since 1989.

Video posted on social media showed crowds of people walking through the streets, some chanting “Death to the dictator!” Reuters was not immediately able to verify the footage. The Fars news agency reported “scattered groups” of protesters in Tehran on Monday and said a ringleader had been arrested.

“The government will show no tolerance for those who damage public property, violate public order and create unrest in society,” Rouhani said in his address on Sunday.

Unsigned statements on social media urged Iranians to continue to demonstrate in 50 towns and cities.

The government said it was temporarily restricting access to the Telegram messaging app and Instagram. There were reports that internet mobile access was blocked in some areas.

TRUMP, NETANYAHU VOICE SUPPORT

Iran is a major OPEC oil producer and regional power deeply involved in Syria and Iraq as part of a battle for influence with rival Saudi Arabia. Many Iranians resent those foreign interventions, and want their leaders to create jobs at home, where youth unemployment reached 28.8 percent last year.

Among reported fatalities, two people were shot dead in the southwestern town of Izeh on Sunday and several others were injured, ILNA news agency quoted a member of parliament as saying.

“I do not know whether yesterday’s shooting was done by rally participants or the police and this issue is being investigated,” Hedayatollah Khademi was quoted as saying.

Regional governor Mostafa Samali told Fars that only one person was killed in an incident unrelated to the protests, and the suspected shooter had been arrested.

Almost nine years since the “Green movement” reformist protests were crushed by the state, Iran’s adversaries voiced their support for the resurgence of anti-government sentiment.

U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted: “The great Iranian people have been repressed for many years. They are hungry for food & for freedom. Along with human rights, the wealth of Iran is being looted. TIME FOR CHANGE!”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the “brave Iranians” taking to streets to protest a regime that “wastes tens of billions of dollars spreading hate”.

“I wish the Iranian people success in their noble quest for freedom,” he said in a video posted on his Facebook page.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel urged “all sides (to) refrain from violent actions”.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Robin Pomeroy and David Gregorio)

Kenya’s Odinga rejects vote re-run date without ‘guarantees’, Kenyatta rebuffs demand

Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga, of the National Super Alliance (NASA) coalition, speaks during a church service inside the St. Stephen's cathedral in Nairobi, Kenya September 3, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

By John Ndiso

NAIROBI (Reuters) – Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga said on Tuesday his coalition would not participate in the re-run of a presidential election proposed for Oct. 17 unless it is given “legal and constitutional” guarantees.

Incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta responded by saying there was nowhere in law that required the electoral body to consult Odinga.

The opposition also said it is planning to file dozens of challenges to results from races lower down the ticket, including legislative and local seats.

Odinga’s conditions for participating in the repeat presidential election include the removal of six officials at the election board. He wants criminal investigations to be opened against them.

“You cannot do a mistake twice and expect to get different results,” Odinga told reporters. “A number of the officials of the commission should be sent home, some of them should be investigated for the heinous crimes they committed.”

Kenya’s Supreme Court ordered on Friday that the Aug. 8 vote be re-run within 60 days, saying Kenyatta’s victory by 1.4 million votes was undermined by irregularities in the process. Kenyatta was not accused of any wrongdoing.

The ruling, the first time in Africa that a court had overturned the re-election of a sitting president, was hailed by Odinga supporters as “historic”.

Analysts have said it is likely to lead to some short-term volatility in East Africa’s biggest economy, but could build confidence in institutions longer-term.

On Monday, the election board said it would hold new elections on Oct. 17.

But Odinga said he wanted elections held on Oct. 24 or 31 instead.

“There will be no elections on the seventeenth of October until the conditions that we have spelt out in the statement are met,” he said.

Kenyatta rebuffed Odinga’s demands to the commission on the setting of the election date.

“There is no legal requirement that Raila be consulted. I was neither consulted. Kenya doesn’t belong to one man,” he said in a statement sent by his office.

Odinga has lost the last three presidential elections. Each time, he has said the vote was rigged against him.

The opposition also plans to lodge 62 court cases contesting governorship, lawmaker, and local seats, spokeswoman Kathleen Openda told Reuters.

At least 33 court cases were filed contesting election results before the presidential election was annulled, said Andrew Limo, spokesman for the election board. Others had been filed since but he did not have the updated figure.

Limo said the numbers had not yet reached the same level as during the 2013 elections, when the board received challenges to 189 results.

(Writing by David Lewis and Katharine Houreld; Editing by George Obulutsa)

Kenyan president, election overturned by court, attacks judiciary

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta flanked by his Deputy William Ruto addresses the nation at State House in Nairobi, Kenya September 1, 2017. Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS

By Maggie Fick

NAIROBI (Reuters) – Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said on Saturday the country has “a problem” with its judiciary that must be fixed.

He was speaking a day after the Supreme Court annulled his election win last month and ordered a new poll within 60 days.

“We shall revisit this thing. We clearly have a problem,” he said, referring to the judiciary.

“Who even elected you? Were you? We have a problem and we must fix it,” he said, speaking on live television at the State House in Nairobi after he met with governors and other elected officials from his Jubilee party.

Kenyatta, however, also repeated his message from Friday that he would respect the court’s ruling.

The decision to annul the election was an unprecedented move in Africa where governments often hold sway over judges — and the first time on the continent that a court ruled against the electoral victory of an incumbent.

The president’s latest comments mark the second time since Friday’s ruling that he has spoken critically about the judiciary in public. On Friday during an impromptu rally in Nairobi, he accused the court of ignoring the will of the people and dismissed the chief justice’s colleagues as “wakora”, or crooks.

The president’s public appearances since the ruling suggest he intends to campaign rigorously ahead of the re-run of the Aug.8 poll.

He said via Twitter on Saturday: “For now let us meet at the ballot.”

Attention now turns back to the election board. The court ruled that it had “failed, neglected or refused to conduct the presidential election in a manner consistent with the dictates of the constitution”.

Raila Odinga, the veteran opposition leader whose coalition brought the petition against the election board to the Supreme Court, said on Friday that some officials from the commission should face criminal prosecution.

The chairman of the election board said there would be personnel changes, but it was not clear if that would be enough for the opposition. Sweeping out the whole board would complicate efforts to hold a new poll within two months.

Last month’s election — which included the presidential poll in addition to races at other levels of government — was one of the most expensive ever held in Africa. Ahead of the vote Kenya’s treasury said preparation and execution of polling would cost the equivalent of around $480 million.

 

VEILED THREATS

Analysts saw the president’s latest comments on the judiciary as a worrisome development.

“It’s extremely unfortunate that Kenyatta seems to be issuing veiled threats at the judiciary,” said Murithi Mutiga, a Nairobi-based senior Africa analyst at the International Crisis Group.

“This was a tremendous moment for Kenyan democracy, where the court upheld the rule of law. Politicians should be careful not to incite the public against the judiciary.”

On Friday, Chief Justice David Maraga said the Supreme Court’s verdict was backed by four of the six judges and declared Kenyatta’s victory “invalid, null and void”.

Details of the ruling will be released within 21 days.

Prior to last month’s election Maraga spoke out to emphasize the judiciary’s independence.

In a statement he read out on behalf of the Judicial Service Commission less than a week before the election, he listed instances in which politicians — from the ruling party and the opposition — had tried to intervene with the judiciary’s work.

“The emerging culture of public lynching of judges and judicial officers by the political class is a vile affront to the rule of law and must be fiercely resisted,” the statement read. “We wish to state that … the judiciary will not cower to these intimidating tactics.”

Kenya’s judiciary went through sweeping changes in a bid to restore confidence in the legal system after the bloodshed following the 2007 election.

 

(Reporting by Maggie Fick; Additional reporting by George Obulutsa; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

 

Venezuela quells attack on military base, two killed

Demonstrators build barricades while rallying against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Valencia, Venezuela August 6, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

By Girish Gupta and Alexandra Ulmer

VALENCIA/CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) – Venezuelan authorities quelled an attack on a military base near the city of Valencia by soldiers and armed civilians on Sunday, killing two of them in a dramatic escalation of unrest in the protest-convulsed South American nation.

The pre-dawn raid coincided with a video circulated on social media showing more than a dozen men in military uniform announcing an uprising to restore constitutional order following the creation of a pro-government legislative superbody on Friday, condemned internationally as a power grab by President Nicolas Maduro.

The assault highlighted the growing volatility of the OPEC member state after four months of sustained anti-government protests in which some 120 people have been killed. The opposition has denounced Maduro for dragging Venezuela toward dictatorship and has appealed to the military for help. (http://tmsnrt.rs/2ujuylf)

In his weekly televised show, the unpopular socialist leader condemned the attackers as “mercenaries”. He said around 20 armed men had entered the Fort of Paramacay near Valencia, about two hours west of capital Caracas, before dawn, surprising guards and making straight for the weapons cache.

Two of the attackers were killed in a firefight with soldiers, Maduro said. Socialist party officials said eight others were arrested, including at least three from the military, while the remainder made off with weapons.

“Those who escaped are being actively searched for, and we are going to capture them,” Maduro said.

In Valencia, hundreds took to the streets to support what at first appeared to be a small military uprising, said resident Carolina Herrera, who like other witnesses reported shots through the night. But hooded protesters were dispelled with tear gas, and the rest of the nation of 30 million people appeared mostly calm.

Last week, Venezuela elected a 545-member legislative superbody that Maduro calls Venezuela’s only hope for restoring peace. The opposition calls it a power play aimed at keeping the president in office despite approval ratings battered by a deep recession, high inflation and shortages of food and medicine.

It was a turbulent first weekend for the increasingly fractured nation under the new authority.

In its first move on Saturday, the Constituent Assembly removed Venezuela’s dissident chief prosecutor from her post and ordered her to stand trial, confirming opposition fears that it would use its powers to root out critics of the government.

Motorcyclist passes through a barricade during protest against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Valencia, Venezuela August 6, 2017.

Motorcyclist passes through a barricade during protest against Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro’s government in Valencia, Venezuela August 6, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

‘DELIRIOUS MINDS IN MIAMI’

The crisis has turned attention to the role of the military, with some ordinary soldiers increasingly weary of the popular backlash against their role in suppressing protests.

Sunday’s attack was apparently led by Juan Carlos Caguaripano, a former National Guard captain. Authorities published photos purporting to show seven arrested men, some of them with bruises on their faces.

In the video circulating Sunday, a man who identified himself as Caguaripano and flanked by men in military uniforms, called for the immediate formation of a transition government.

“This is not a coup d’etat,” added Caguaripano, who was removed from the National Guard in 2014, according to a document seen by Reuters.

“This is a civic and military action to re-establish constitutional order. But more than that, it is to save the country from total destruction.”

Sunday’s apparent bid to spur a national uprising came six weeks after rogue policeman Oscar Perez attacked key installations in Caracas by helicopter. Perez, who also failed to spark a larger movement, is still in hiding.

Authorities said the attackers were mostly civilians working for U.S.-backed right-wingers who are trying to end nearly two decades of socialism in Venezuela, raising the specter of a further government crackdown on dissent in coming days.

“These attacks, planned by delirious minds in Miami, only strengthen the morale of our armed forces and the Bolivarian people,” said Socialist Party official Elias Jaua.

The new assembly, which Maduro says is needed to enshrine socialism more profoundly in the constitution, has the power to dissolve or reconstitute all government bodies. The opposition, which controls Congress, boycotted the election for the new body, saying the rules had been rigged.

The fired prosecutor, Luisa Ortega, had become Maduro’s main challenger from within the ruling socialist movement since the start of sustained opposition street protests in April.

Her successor has promised to crack down on the demonstrations but Ortega on Sunday rejected her removal as illegal and said she still considers herself the country’s top prosecutor.

 

ARMED FORCES IN SPOTLIGHT

Oil-rich but economically ailing Venezuela has a long history of instability. Maduro’s mentor, the late Hugo Chavez, burst onto the national scene by leading a 1992 coup attempt, for which he served time in jail before winning the presidency six years later.

Venezuelans view the armed forces as the key power broker in their country, and opposition leaders have repeatedly exhorted the military to break with Maduro over what they call his erosion of democracy and brutality toward demonstrators.

The military has played a key role in government since Chavez – himself a former military officer – swept to power in 1999 promising to bring greater equality to Venezuela, home to the world’s largest oil reserves.

The top brass continues to publicly profess loyalty to Maduro’s government. Critics say juicy government contracts, corruption, and contraband mean many military officials want Maduro to stay in office and fear persecution should the opposition take power.

Discontent is higher among lower-tier officials, who are often sent to control rowdy protests and are paid just a few dozen U.S. dollars a month.

“You can’t ask civil society and the military to suffer more hunger, crime, and corruption perpetrated by this repressive government,” said opposition lawmaker Carlos Michelangeli.

 

(Writing by Hugh Bronstein and Alexandra Ulmer; Additional reporting by Corina Pons, Deisy Buitrago and Hugh Bronstein; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Mary Milliken)

 

Exclusive: At least 123 Venezuelan soldiers detained since protests – documents

Soldiers march during a military parade to celebrate the 206th anniversary of Venezuela's independence in Caracas, Venezuela, July 5, 2017. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Girish Gupta

CARACAS (Reuters) – At least 123 members of Venezuela’s armed forces have been detained since anti-government unrest began in April on charges ranging from treason and rebellion to theft and desertion, according to military documents seen by Reuters.

The list of detainees, which includes officers as well as servicemen from the lower ranks of the army, navy, air force and National Guard, provided the clearest picture to date of dissatisfaction and dissent within Venezuela’s roughly 150,000-strong military.

The records, detailing prisoners held in three Venezuelan jails, showed that since April nearly 30 members of the military have been detained for deserting or abandoning their post and almost 40 for rebellion, treason, or insubordination.

Most of the remaining military prisoners were charged with theft.

Millions of Venezuelans are suffering from food shortages and soaring inflation caused by a severe economic crisis. Even within the armed forces, salaries start at the minimum wage, equivalent to around $12.50 a month at the black market exchange rate, and privately some members admit to being poorly paid and underfed.

Since the opposition started its protests more than three months ago, a handful of security officials have gone public with their discontent. Last week, rogue policeman and action movie star Oscar Perez commandeered a helicopter and attacked government buildings, claiming that a faction within the armed forces was opposed to Maduro’s government.

The military documents seen by Reuters, which covered detentions until mid-June, appeared to support opposition leaders’ assertions that anger and dissent among soldiers over economic hardship is more widespread.

“This shows low morale and discontent and, of course, economic necessity,” one former army general said of the detentions, asking not to be named for fear of reprisals.

Venezuela’s military and Information Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Venezuelans view the armed forces as the key power broker in their country. Opposition leaders have repeatedly exhorted military leaders to break with socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

Maduro has said that he is the victim of an “armed insurrection” by U.S.-backed opponents seeking to gain control of the OPEC country’s oil wealth. He has said that the top military brass have been standing by him.

The National Guard has been at the forefront of policing protests across the country. It uses tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets against masked youths who in turn hurl stones, Molotov cocktails and excrement at security lines. At least 90 people have been killed since April.

Privately, some National Guard members on the streets have acknowledged being exhausted, impoverished and hungry, though most remain impassive during protests and avoid engaging in conversation with reporters.

“LITTLE RAMBOS”

The documents, which identified detainees by their rank, listed captains, sergeants, lieutenants and regular troops held in three prisons in different parts of Venezuela.

Ninety-one are at Ramo Verde, a hilltop jail near Caracas where opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez is also held.

Another two dozen are at Pica prison in the northeastern city of Maturin and eight are at Santa Ana jail in the western state of Tachira, near the Colombian border.

It was not immediately clear if military prisoners were also being held in other jails.

Three lieutenants fled to Colombia and requested asylum in May, and a man who said he was a Venezuelan naval sergeant appeared in a video published by local media last month expressing his dissent and urging colleagues to disobey “abusive” and “corrupt” superiors.

Maduro has blamed the problems on an “economic war” being waged by the opposition with backing from Washington, a position taken in public by senior military officials.

“Many are seeking … little ‘Rambos’ in the armed forces, but you’re not going to find them,” Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino said in a video published on Monday, alluding to speculation of a military coup.

Perez, who staged the helicopter attack last week against the Interior Ministry and the Supreme Court in Caracas, appeared in an online video on Wednesday vowing to keep up the fight.

“We are fully sure of what we are doing and if we must give up our lives, we will hand them over to the people,” Perez said, sitting in front of a Venezuelan flag and rifle.

(Editing by Alexandra Ulmer, Andrew Cawthorne, Toni Reinhold)

Venezuela hunts rogue helicopter attackers, Maduro foes suspicious

Demonstrators holding a Venezuelan flag attend a rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela June 27, 2017. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

By Andrew Cawthorne and Victoria Ramirez

CARACAS (Reuters) – The Venezuelan government hunted on Wednesday for rogue policemen who attacked key installations by helicopter, but critics of President Nicolas Maduro suspected the raid may have been staged to justify repression.

In extraordinary scenes over Caracas around sunset on Tuesday, the stolen helicopter fired shots at the Interior Ministry and dropped grenades on the Supreme Court, both viewed by Venezuela’s opposition as bastions of support for a dictator.

Nobody was injured.

Officials said special forces were seeking Oscar Perez, 36, a police pilot named as the mastermind of the raid by the helicopter that carried a banner saying “Freedom!”

In 2015, Perez co-produced and starred in “Death Suspended,” an action film in which he played the lead role as a government agent rescuing a kidnapped businessman.

There was no sign on Wednesday of Perez, whom officials condemned as a “psychopath”, but the helicopter was found on Venezuela’s northern Caribbean coastline.

“We ask for maximum support to find this fanatic, extremist terrorist,” vice president Tareck El Aissami said.

The attack exacerbated an already full-blown political crisis in Venezuela after three months of opposition protests demanding general elections and fixes for the sinking economy.

At least 76 people have died in the unrest since April, the latest a 25-year-old man shot in the head near a protest in the Petare slum of Caracas, authorities said on Wednesday.

Hundreds more people have been injured and arrested in what Maduro terms an ongoing coup attempt with U.S. encouragement.

The attack fed a conspiracy theory by opposition supporters that it may have been a government setup and overshadowed other drama on Tuesday, including the besieging of opposition legislators by gangs in the National Assembly.

The helicopter raid also coincided with a judicial measure weakening the powers of dissident chief state prosecutor Luisa Ortega, who has emerged as a major challenger to Maduro.

“It seems like a movie,” said Julio Borges, leader of the opposition-controlled legislature, of the helicopter raid.

“Some people say it is a set-up, some that it is real … Yesterday was full of contradictions … A thousand things are happening, but I summarize it like this: a government is decaying and rotting, while a nation is fighting for dignity.”

Though Perez posted a video on social media showing himself in front of four hooded armed men and claiming to represent a coalition of security and civilian officials rising up against “tyranny,” there was no evidence of deeper support.

“CHEAP SHOW”

The government, however, accused the policemen of links to the CIA and to Miguel Rodriguez, a former interior minister and intelligence chief under Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chavez, who recently broke with the government.

“I’m not at all convinced by the helicopter incident,” Rodriguez told Reuters on Wednesday, saying the figures behind Perez in the video looked like dummies and expressing surprise the helicopter could fly freely and also not injure anyone.

“Conclusion: a cheap show. Who gains from this? Only Nicolas for two reasons: to give credibility to his coup d’etat talk, and to blame Rodriguez,” he added, referring to himself.

Around the time of the attack, the pro-government Supreme Court expanded the role of the state ombudsman, a human rights guarantor who is closely allied with Maduro, by giving him powers previously held only by the state prosecutor’s office.

Opposition leaders described that as an attempt to supplant chief prosecutor Ortega, who has confronted both Maduro and the Supreme Court this year after splitting ranks.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday evening said it approved a measure blocking Ortega from leaving the country, freezing her bank accounts, and summoning her to a July 4 hearing to discuss whether she has committed “serious offenses.”

Adding to Venezuela’s tinder-box atmosphere, opposition supporters again took to the streets nationwide on Wednesday to barricade roads.

One opposition lawmaker, Juan Guaido, filmed himself bleeding from wounds he said were inflicted by rubber bullets.

Opposition supporters hope that cracks within government may swing the crisis their way, and have been delighted to see heavyweights like Ortega and Rodriguez oppose Maduro.

Their main focus is to stop a July 30 vote called by Maduro to form a super-body known as a Constituent Assembly, with powers to rewrite the constitution and supersede other institutions. Maduro says the assembly is the only way to bring peace to Venezuela, but opponents say it is a sham vote intended solely to keep an unpopular government in power.

“We can’t let July 30 happen, we mustn’t,” said children’s health worker Rosa Toro, 52, blocking a road with friends. “We’re being governed by criminals, traffickers and thieves,” added lawyer Matias Perez, 40, protesting with a plastic trumpet.

Government officials lined up on Wednesday to condemn the helicopter attack, insisting it was the work of a few individuals and not representative of wider dissent.

Foreign Minister Samuel Moncada complained about the lack of international condemnation of the attack, saying it contrasted with the barrage of foreign criticism of the government.

“In Europe it’s now eight at night, but we’ve not had any reaction from European Union countries,” he said of a bloc that has been strongly critical of Maduro in recent months.

The minister rejected accusations that the attack was carried out by the government for its own purposes.

“Who can believe we are that sophisticated? Sending someone to throw grenades, who can believe that?” he asked.

(Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea, Silene Ramirez, Brian Ellsworth, Herbert Villaraga, Diego Ore, Corina Pons and Girish Gupta; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Andrew Hay)

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)