Venezuelans stage 'silent protest' in wave of unrest

Javier TOVAR
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Venezuelan government has accused the opposition of sowing violence, while opposition blames the government for ordering police to repress peaceful protests

Dressed in white, Venezuelan protesters marched in silence on Saturday to demand the ouster of President Nicolas Maduro, a show of defiance after three weeks of unrest that left 20 people dead.

After tense negotiations with security forces blocking their way, protesters in Caracas were allowed to march to their destination, the headquarters of the Catholic bishops' conference.

A brief scuffle took place on the capital's east side, where police fired tear gas to disperse a group of demonstrators trying to join the main march.

But there were no reports of violence on the scale seen at other protests, where there have been running battles pitting riot police and pro-government vigilantes against demonstrators hurling stones and Molotov cocktails.

The center-right opposition accuses the leftist government of repressing protests and sending armed thugs to attack them.

The "silent protest" was a test of the authorities' tolerance for peaceful demonstrations.

"I'm sure they'll meet us with the usual (tear) gas, which is how they preach peace," said 71-year-old protester Hector Urbina.

Protesters also marched to the Catholic Church's episcopal seats in several other cities across the country, tightly guarded by the police and national guard.

Many wore white T-shirts emblazoned with the word "peace." Others carried white flowers or Venezuelan flags, while one protester wielded a giant wooden cross.

The opposition is seen as close to the Church, which the government accuses of playing politics against it.

- 'Nothing to lose' -

The opposition blames Maduro for the unraveling of oil giant Venezuela's once-booming economy, which has left the country mired in shortages of food, medicine and basic goods.

Some protesters silently prayed, others carried Christian-themed banners or images.

"I'm not afraid," said protester Jessica Muchacho, 33.

"We've got nothing left to lose. The government's already taken everything, all possibility of living our lives with dignity."

The opposition plans to return to a more confrontational strategy on Monday, when it is calling for Venezuelans to block roads in a bid to grind the country to a halt.

On Thursday, protests descended into a night of clashes, riots and looting that left 12 people dead in Caracas. More pockets of violence erupted Friday night.

Residents described terrifying scenes Thursday night and early Friday.

"It was like a war," said Carlos Yanez, a resident of the El Valle neighborhood in southwestern Caracas, where 11 people were killed.

The two sides blame each other for the unrest.

Vice President Tareck El Aissami accused the opposition of sponsoring a "spiral of terrorism" to trigger a coup.

Senior opposition leader Henrique Capriles fired back that the government's "savage repression" was causing the violence.

- Fourth week on edge -

Maduro, the heir of the leftist "Bolivarian revolution" launched by the late Hugo Chavez in 1999, says the protests are part of a US-backed coup plot.

Pressure on the socialist president has been mounting since 2014, when prices for Venezuela's crucial oil exports started to plunge.

The crisis escalated on March 30, when the Supreme Court moved to seize the powers of the legislature, the only lever of state authority not controlled by Maduro and his allies.

The court partly backtracked after an international outcry. But tension only increased when the authorities slapped a political ban on Capriles on April 7.

According to pollster Venebarometro, seven in 10 Venezuelans disapprove of Maduro, whose term does not end until 2019.

The opposition is demanding elections to exit the crisis.

The secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro -- one of Maduro's harshest critics -- accused the government of cowardice.

"When the political leadership gives the order to open fire on its own people, that's a very strong signal of cowardice and weakness," he told AFP.