Three people are reported to have died as hundreds of thousands turned out to rally across Venezuela. More than 400 people have been arrested, and the opposition has called for protests to continue on Thursday.
Hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets of Venezuela's capital, Caracas, and other cities on Wednesday, as the opposition vowed to keep pressure on leftist President Nicolas Maduro with more demonstrations planned for Thursday.
The rallies are the latest in a series of opposition protests gathering support around a number of issues. They range from a decision three weeks ago by the government-stacked Supreme Court to strip the opposition-controlled Congress of its last remaining powers after a year-long battle, to the dwindling supply of medicines and basic supplies, food shortages, triple-digit inflation and rampant crime.
No official crowd estimates were released, but the opposition claimed up to 6 million people participated in demonstrations across the country. The protesters converged from 26 different places in the capital in an attempt to march to the Caracas Office of the Ombudsman, who is responsible for investigating complaints against any public authority. Protesters attempting to march along the same route were met in the past with security vehicles, tear gas and rubber bullets fired by riot police officers.
At least two protesters were shot and killed by police or paramilitary groups. A police officer was also killed. A hospital director confirmed the death of an 18-year-old student, Carlos Moreno, who was on his way to play soccer when shots were fired near groups of opposition and government supporters. Authorities in the city of San Cristobal also reported that a 23-year-old woman was killed by gunfire after pro-government supporters circled protesters.
More than 400 people were arrested in Wednesday's protests, authorities said. Unverified videos on social media showed police and pro-government militia violence, including shootings.
Despite the clashes between anti-government demonstrators and police, Venezuela's opposition promised that protests would continue. "When millions took to the streets today, even more must go out tomorrow," opposition leader Henrique Capriles said, announcing further protests for Thursday.
Maduro accused the opposition of inciting Wednesday's violence and called for an election to "put conspirators, murderers and interventionist right-wingers in their place."
Five other people have been killed since protests broke out earlier this month following the Supreme Court's decision to strip Congress of its powers. The top court later reversed its own decision, but Maduro's attempted power grab has emboldened the opposition.
The opposition has called for a timeline leading to delayed elections. They were backed by 11 Latin American countries who issued a joint statement this week calling on authorities to set a time frame for elections to "allow for a quick solution to the crisis that Venezuela is living through."
In the statement, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay rejected the violence in Venezuela that led to the deaths of protesters.
Speaking on TV on Tuesday evening, Maduro accused the US State Department of trying to promote a military intervention and "direct aggression."
The president signed orders late Tuesday activating the "green phase" of military plans to defend the South American country against what he described as US-backed attempts to sow chaos and overthrow him. He said authorities had rounded up "conspirators."
A day earlier, in a US State Department statement titled "Non Violence and Accountability During Protests in Venezuela," the US government encouraged "demonstrators to express themselves non-violently." It also reminded the Venezuela security forces "of their legal and constitutional responsibilities to protect, not prevent, peaceful demonstrations."
Maduro said he was expanding civilian militias created by his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, and giving each member a gun.
Venezuela's economic woes are set to continue, according to the World Bank, which has forecast that the rate of economic growth in the country would be negative 3.1 percent in 2017. It was minus 12 percent in 2016. The bank forecast 0.6 percent growth for next year on the back of projected firmer oil prices - far below estimates for regional growth of about 2.5 percent for 2018.
Venezuela has, according to some estimates, the world's largest oil reserves. However oil industry management has been criticized as ineffectual, with inadequate and outdated equipment.
jm, dm/cmk (EFE, AP)