Thousands of supporters and opponents of President Nicolas Maduro took to the streets in rival protests in Caracas on Wednesday. Meanwhile, a university student, a National Guard captain and a third man were shot to death in separate incidents in the central city of Valencia.
The violence in the capital began when National Guard forces blocked opposition protesters from leaving Plaza Venezuela and marching on the head of state ombudsman's office. Students threw stones and petrol bombs while police responded with tear gas and water cannon.
Opposition activists blamed police for shooting a student near his home in Valencia, but the state governor said the shot was from snipers among protesters. A 42-year-old man was killed in the same clashes while painting his house, Mayor Miguel Cocchiola said. An army captain died from a gunshot during a clash with "terrorist criminals," government officials said.
At least 25 people have been killed in student-led demonstrations across Venezuela over the last month, according to the government. The single-day death toll Wednesday was the highest since February 12. Opposition leaders and officials have accused each other of backing radical groups that have attacked demonstrations with firearms.
High inflation, grocery shortages and violent crime have fueled the biggest challenge yet to Maduro, who was elected last year. The leftist president's bloc retains significant authority – his party controls the legislature and judiciary and has the support of the military – but he accuses the opposition of trying to overthrow him.
In response to the latest unrest, Maduro called an emergency meeting of his security cabinet Wednesday evening. "I'm going to take drastic measures with all of these sectors that are attacking and killing the Venezuelan people," he said.
International call for 'dialogue'
Foreign ministers from South America's UNASUR group said Wednesday they were sending a commission to Venezuela to oversee political negotiations aimed at bringing peace to the country.
"UNASUR expresses condolences and solidarity with the families of the victims, the people and the democratically elected government of that brother nation," the foreign ministers said in a statement.
They expressed their support Venezuelans building a "dialogue between the government and all political forces and players."
US Secretary of State John Kerry left open the possibility of using sanctions against Venezuela, but cautioned they might not be the answer considering the fragile state of the country's economy. He also called on Venezuela's neighbors to take the lead in easing the tension, and rejected Maduro's accusations that Washington was behind the movement against his government.
"We've become an excuse. We're a card they play," Kerry told a US House of Representatives Committee. "And I regret that, because we've very much opened up and reached out in an effort to say, 'it doesn't have to be this way.'"
dr/av (AP, AFP, Reuters)