CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said Saturday that a police manhunt was underway for Leopoldo Lopez, the hard-line opposition leader behind anti-government demonstrations that ended with three deaths.
The socialist president’s announcement came amid dueling pro-government and student-led opposition demonstrations held in different parts of the capital, Caracas.
Lopez “ordered all these violent kids, which he trained, to destroy the prosecutor’s office and half of Caracas and then goes into hiding,” Maduro told thousands of supporters at a rally to denounce what he called a U.S.-backed, “fascist” plot to oust him from power. “Turn yourself in, coward.”
U.S. officials have denied plotting to oust Maduro.
Maduro said security forces acting on a Feb. 12 arrest order are now looking for Lopez, who hasn’t been seen since a Wednesday night press conference in which he vowed that anti-government street protests would continue.
Aides to Lopez denied he’s ducking arrest and say he remains in the country. His lawyers, who’ve been unable to gain access to the alleged arrest order, have urged him to refrain from making public statements until one materializes.
Lopez, a former mayor, is the most prominent of a group of hard-liners that have challenged two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles for leadership of anti-Maduro forces.
In the Chacao area of the capital, meanwhile, Venezuelan security forces used tear gas to disperse hundreds of university students gathered to demand justice for two students killed during Wednesday’s demonstration.
For the past three days, student protesters had occupied the main highway through Caracas for several hours, blocking traffic to press their demands.
Ramon Muchacho, the mayor of Chacao, said that on Saturday the students were walking “peacefully toward the highway … when they were repelled by tear gas.” The students responded by throwing rocks at police and regrouping nearby.
Muchacho later tweeted that 10 people had been injured, none with bullet wounds.