CARACAS: Thousands of Venezuelans dressed in white, blowing on whistles and blasting horns, protested in Caracas Sunday against the government of President Nicolas Maduro, the latest in escalating demonstrations that have left 18 people dead.
Hours earlier, authorities released dozens of protesters and an Italian photographer, but that did nothing to appease demonstrators angry at a soaring crime rate, spiraling inflation, the lack of basic goods and limited democratic rights.
More than 260 people have been injured since a wave of nationwide protests erupted on Feb. 4, in what has grown into the biggest threat to Maduro and his left-wing government since he succeeded socialist icon Hugo Chavez last year.
Students and the opposition have accused the government of heavy handedness in dealing with protests that have roiled the capital Caracas on nearly a daily basis and also spread to other major cities.
After relative calm on Saturday, Venezuelans hit the streets again on Sunday under the slogan “Caracas is mobilized.”
Many in the noisy demonstration wore white and carried Venezuelan flags.
They also poked fun at Maduro’s decision to call a six-day holiday to mark the beginning of Carnival, an annual celebration that normally sees many Venezuelans leave the cities and head to the beach. Critics say the holiday was a cynical attempt to undermine the demonstrations.
“I prefer a carnival without beach rather than life without freedom,” one banner read.
They also implored Maduro supporters — who have held counter rallies in the past month leading to clashes between the two sides — to “come with us.”
“We are demonstrating for the dead,” Argenis Arteaga, an engineering student from Petare, one of the biggest favelas in Latin America, told AFP.
“There is no carnival, there is nothing to celebrate.”
Maduro, who denounces the demonstrations as part of a Washington-backed coup plot aimed at toppling his government, has been accused of targeting the domestic and foreign media, while hundreds of people — including opposition leaders — have been detained.
Among them was Italian photographer Francesca Commissari and protesters arrested on Friday in Caracas. Commissari declared her freedom on Twitter Sunday, thanking friends, the Italian consulate and her lawyer for securing her release.
Venezuela’s journalist association SNTP confirmed the freeing of Commissari, who lives in Venezuela and works for the local El Nacional newspaper, and about 40 protesters.
A total of 863 people have been arrested since Feb. 9, the NGO Foro Penal said, with 30 still behind bars.
Marco Ruiz, head of the SNTP, said the arrests of foreign reporters were part of a deliberate government policy to intimidate the overseas press in the same way they had already done with local media.
“The pattern of attacks that is repeating itself is now against international correspondents,” Ruiz said.
Among those detained Friday, when protesters clashed with security forces who fired tear gas, were eight foreigners “held for international terrorism,” state VTV television said.
They included U.S. freelance reporter Andrew Rosati, who writes for the Miami Herald, a team of journalists from the US-based Associated Press and Commissari.
It was not immediately clear if all of them had been released.