February 18, 2014 in Nation/World

Venezuela braces for political demonstrations, violence

Vicente Marquez Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela – A crowd of anti-government activists wrested free an opposition politician as he was being hauled away in handcuffs by security forces following a raid on the party headquarters of President Nicolas Maduro’s biggest foe.

Dario Ramirez, a city councilman, shouted “I’m an elected official” as national guardsmen, surrounded by journalists and party activists, frantically looked for an escape route from the Caracas shopping mall where they took him into custody. Once outside, dozens of activists banging pots and pans in protest attacked the squad, freeing Ramirez by force and speeding him away on a motorcycle.

The dramatic scene underscored the rising tensions that could spill over into violence today when pro- and anti-government activists hold dueling demonstrations in the capital.

Ramirez belongs to the Popular Will party led by Leopoldo Lopez, the target of a police manhunt accused by Maduro of inciting violence and leading a U.S.-backed conspiracy to oust him from power.

Maduro’s government on Monday gave three U.S. Embassy officials 48 hours to leave the country, charging that the Obama administration is siding with opposition protesters. Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said the senior U.S. consular officers were trying to infiltrate Venezuelan universities, the hotbed of the recent unrest, under the cover of doing visa outreach.

The U.S. denied the charges, and is expressing concern about rising violence and the government’s attempts to block peaceful protests.

More than 1,000 students, among activists who have spent the past week on the streets alternating between peaceful protests by day and battles with police at night, marched to Venezuela’s telecommunications regulator Monday. They demanded it lift all restrictions on the news media’s coverage of the unfolding political crisis, which is being fed by complaints about hardships ranging from 56 percent inflation to rampant crime.

Police repelled the activists with tear gas and rubber bullets but there were no reports of serious injuries.

Maduro accuses Lopez of being behind the violence and of leading a “fascist” plot to overthrow him two months after his party’s candidates won mayoral elections by a landslide.

Lopez said he doesn’t fear going to jail to defend his beliefs. In a video message Sunday, he called on supporters to march with him in white shirts today to the Interior Ministry, where he’ll deliver a petition demanding the government protect citizens’ rights to peacefully protest.

To avoid another violent clash, Lopez aides rerouted today’s protest away from the central plaza in Caracas where a competing march of pro-government oil workers will take place.

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