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Opposition, pro-government rallies grip Venezuela

By Joshua Goodman and Fabiola Sanchez
Associated Press

CARACAS, VENEZUELA: Venezuelans on both sides of the nation’s bitter political divide took to the streets Saturday after two weeks of mass protests that have President Nicolas Maduro scrambling to squash an increasingly militant opposition movement.

In Caracas, tens of thousands of opponents of Maduro filled several city blocks in their biggest rally to date against his 10-month-old government.

Across town, at the presidential palace, Maduro addressed a much smaller crowd of mostly female supporters dressed in the red of his socialist party.

The dueling protests capped a violent week in which the government jailed Leopoldo Lopez, a fiery hard-liner who roused the opposition following its defeat in December’s mayoral elections, and dozens of other student activists. The violence has left at least 10 people dead on both sides and injured more than 100.

A few small clashes that erupted between government opponents and state security forces after the opposition rally broke up were visually impressive, but resulted in only five injuries.

In a pattern seen in past demonstrations, dozens of stragglers erected barricades of trash and other debris and threw rocks and bottles at police and National Guardsmen. Troops responded with volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets to prevent the students from reaching a highway.

There were also clashes in San Cristobal, a remote city on the western border with Colombia that has seen some of the worst violence, but most opposition marches across the country ended peacefully.

The protests claimed their 10th fatality when a 23-year-old student in the provincial city of Valencia was pronounced dead Saturday after an eight-hour surgery for brain injuries suffered at a demonstration earlier in the week.

Geraldine Moreno was near her home on Wednesday, watching students defend a barricade at the corner of her street, when six national guardsmen rushed in and fired rubber bullets at close range, hitting her in the face, El Universal newspaper reported.

On Saturday at the opposition rally held in wealthier eastern Caracas, two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles urged supporters to keep pressuring the government to resolve problems afflicting the oil-rich nation, from rampant crime to galloping 56 percent inflation.

Elsewhere in the capital, government backers filled a wide avenue in a boisterous march to the presidential palace accompanied by sound trucks blaring music and slogans. The crowd made up mostly of women danced in the street and carried photos of the late President Hugo Chavez.



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