Crowds have gathered in cities across Venezuela for another day of rival pro- and anti-government rallies. High inflation and soaring crime have fueled protests while government disputes with the US continue.
The protests, which began earlier this month, are the biggest challenge to President Nicolas Maduro since he succeeded longtime President Hugo Chavez who died last year.
Pro- and anti-government groups have accused each other of using violence. At least eight people have died and more than 100 have been injured in violence connected to the protests, which began with a huge anti-government rally on February 12 against government inaction on soaring crime and inflation.
Secretary of State John Kerry, criticized Venezuela's government for confronting protesters with force, imprisoning students, limiting freedoms of expression and assembly and revoking the credentials of reporters working for US broadcaster CNN.
"This is not how democracies behave," Kerry said, urging all sides, including the protesters, to refrain from violence.
His comments brought an immediate response from Maduro. "John Kerry threatens Venezuela with more violence, with his statements gives the green light to violent groups to attack our people," the president wrote on his Twitter account on Saturday.
A pro-government rally on Saturday in the capital, Caracas, was organized under the banner of "women against fascist violence," a reference to Maduro's often repeated claim that the protests are part of a right-wing effort to oust his socialist government.
Authorities have blamed prominent opposition figure and Harvard-educated economist Leopoldo Lopez for fomenting the violence. He has been jailed on charges that include arson and incitement, prompting anger from his supporters at home and criticism from abroad.
Former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, currently the governor of Miranda state, called on Saturday for protest rallies against groups accused of intimidating and attacking anti-government demonstrators. Tens of thousands filled several city blocks in their biggest rally to date against Maduro's ten-month-old government.
"When are you going to resolve our problems, when we're all in the cemetery?" Capriles asked before a crowd of government opponents. "If you (Maduro) can't, then it's time to go."
San Cristobal, the third richest city of Venezuela, has seen some of the most violent clashes between protesters and National Guard troops. The city near the western border with Colombia has a large student population.
Thousands of people marched peacefully, protesting the high crime rates, food shortages and high inflation rates. Despite natural wealth through massive oil reserves, inflation reached 56 percent in January 2014.
jm/rc (AP, AFP)