Defying crackdown, Venezuelans stage new march

Maria Isabel SANCHEZ
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Venezuelan protesters are planning new marches against President Nicolas Maduro despite the deaths of more than 25 people in April

Venezuelan protesters planned a new march Wednesday against President Nicolas Maduro, defying his government despite the deaths of more than 25 people in an increasingly violent political crisis.

The opposition called on protesters to march on central Caracas, a pro-Maduro bastion where the seat of government is located.

Previous attempts to reach the city center have degenerated into clashes between riot police and stone-throwing protesters.

Twenty-six people have died so far this month in violence around the protests, including four minors, according to Attorney General Luisa Ortega.

Maduro put the figure at 29 deaths in a speech Tuesday evening, without giving details.

"Twenty-nine of our countrymen have been murdered, and the right-wingers are to blame. The people are demanding justice," he said.

The center-right opposition blames Maduro for severe shortages of food, medicine and other essentials in the oil-rich country.

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

The crisis deepened late last month when the Supreme Court moved to seize power from the National Assembly, the only lever of state authority Maduro and his allies do not control.

The court partly backtracked after an international outcry. But the opposition was further galvanized when authorities banned senior opposition leader Henrique Capriles from politics.

In just under a month of unrest, more than 400 people have been injured, and nearly 1,300 arrested, the attorney general said.

- Journalists face 'alarming' threats -

That includes 14 arrested journalists, their union said Tuesday, condemning the figure as "alarming."

More than 100 journalists have been assaulted while covering the protests, it added, accusing the national guard of "harassing, beating and intimidating" reporters.

The opposition accuses the government of using the security forces to repress peaceful protests, and of sending armed thugs to attack them.

The government in turn accuses the opposition of paying armed agitators to stir up violence.

Maduro has resisted more than a year of efforts to force him from office, though he said over the weekend that he was willing to hold regional elections that have been postponed indefinitely.

With few options left to get rid of him before the end of his term in 2019, the opposition is urging all-out street rallies to push for elections.

"We cannot give up. If we manage to keep up this pressure we will achieve change," said senior opposition lawmaker Freddy Guevara, rallying support for Wednesday's protests.

The opposition said it would try to march on the offices of the national ombudsman, Tarek William Saab, whom it accuses of betraying his duty to defend Venezuelans' human rights.

The Organization of American States has meanwhile called an extraordinary meeting on the Venezuelan crisis Wednesday.

Falling prices for Venezuela's crucial oil exports have slashed its revenues, leading to critical shortages and looting.

But while Maduro's camp lost its majority in the National Assembly when the opposition won a landslide in legislative elections in 2015, it retains a firm grip on the courts, electoral authorities and -- crucially -- the military.