Venezuela protesters march against security crackdown
Demonstrator wears a Guy Fawkes mask during an anti-government protest in Caracas - AFP/Juan Bsrreto
AFP

CARACAS: Hundreds of Venezuelan protesters hit the streets of Caracas on Friday to denounce alleged abuses by security forces, as a soldier’s death brought to 18 the number killed in three-week street battles.

With no sign of a breakthrough in the political crisis gripping the oil-rich country, the United States urged President Nicolas Maduro to hold talks with protesters and end the bloody violence.

“They need to reach out and have a dialogue, and bring people together and resolve their problems,” Kerry said in Washington.

“We need a dialogue within Venezuela, not arrests and violence in the streets.”

Kerry said the United States was working with Colombia and other countries to bolster mediation efforts.

Maduro has labeled the protests that began on February 4 a Washington-backed attempted “coup.”

He claims the radical opposition leaders that have joined students angered by high inflation and goods shortage in filling the streets are plotting to topple his nearly year-old government.

- Protests against abuses -

Maduro said several members of the Bolivian National Guard were “ambushed” and shot at while removing debris from the streets of the economic hub of Valencia. One died from a shot in the eye and another was shot twice in the leg.

“All these things are aimed at triggering a backlash from security forces,” Maduro said from the Miraflores presidential palace, where he was talking with representatives of various political and social sectors.

“Justice must prevail against implacable murderers and those preparing paramilitary groups… to hide behind alleged protests and seek civil war.”

Protest organizer Alfredo Romero, president of the Venezuelan Penal Forum, said 33 cases of “cruel and inhuman treatment or torture” have been reported to the public ombudsman.

The Venezuelan government said it was investigating 27 cases of human rights abuses, though it provided no details of possible wrongdoing.

Romero also denounced what he claims is the Military Intelligence Directorate’s “harassment” of one his lawyers advising victims in the economic hub of Valencia.

One of the cases investigated by the Penal Forum involves the alleged rape using a rifle of a young man arrested by the National Guard.

The press workers’ union, which had also called for protests, reported about 70 cases of harassment, threats, arbitrary arrest or theft directed at local and foreign journalists.

Some of the deaths have been attributed to violent clashes with police, but other victims have been shot by unidentified gunmen, whom the protesters have accused of being government agents.

The government has denied all links to such killings.

“The Public Ministry will not allow human rights violations under any circumstances,” Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz said.

In announcing a rise in fatalities linked to the protests, she also announced that 261 people had been wounded — prior to Friday’s alleged attack on National Guardsmen — and 1,044 detained, of which 72 remain behind bars.

- ‘Inexcusable’ violence -

The U.S. Congress has condemned “inexcusable” violence against anti-government protesters, calling for a dialogue to end the crisis and urging President Barack Obama to impose sanctions on those responsible for the crackdown.

The resolution came one day after Venezuela reportedly issued an arrest warrant for a second opposition figure accused of crimes linked to the protests, including arson, public incitement and criminal damage.

Leopoldo Lopez, of the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) party, had turned himself in last week after a warrant went out for his arrest.

The party said Thursday that Maduro’s embattled government was now seeking Carlos Vecchio, the Voluntad Popular party’s national political coordinator.

Court officials have not confirmed the move against Vecchio.

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