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At least 12 people killed in Venezuela as political crisis deepens

At least 12 people have been killed following looting and violence in Venezuela's capital amid a spiralling political crisis in the South American country.

The Public Ministry confirmed the deaths on Friday and said another six were hurt.

Most of the deaths took place in El Valle, where opposition leaders say 13 people were hit with an electrical current while trying to loot a bakery protected by an electric fence.

Earlier on Friday, officials reported that a young Venezuelan man returning home late from work on Thursday had been fatally shot when he got caught in the middle of late-night street clashes that engulfed several working-class neighbourhoods in Caracas.

Melvin Guitan died in a poor neighbourhood in eastern Caracas amid the almost-daily, increasingly violent protests against President Nicolas Maduro.

Venezuelan social media was ablaze late into the night with grainy mobile phone videos of light-armoured vehicles ploughing down dark streets to control pockets of protesters who set up burning barricades in several neighbourhoods.

At least five people were injured in one disturbance a short distance from Caracas' main military base.

Amid the confusion, mothers and newborn children had to be evacuated from a maternity hospital when it was swamped with tear gas.

But while anti-government protesters accused riot police of being behind the attack, Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez said armed groups hired by Mr Maduro's opponents were to blame.

Vicente Paez, a local councilman, said Mr Guitan was an employee of a Caracas-area city governed by an opposition mayor and did not join the protests.

It was not clear who shot him and there was no immediate comment from authorities.

The outburst of violence followed a second straight day of major demonstrations on Thursday that saw tens of thousands of Venezuelans flood into the streets to demand elections and denounce what they consider a dictatorial government.

The opposition said they have no intention of pulling back on protests that were triggered when the government-stacked Supreme Court three weeks ago gutted congress of its last vestiges of power, a move that was later reversed amid a storm of international criticism.

"Twenty days of resistance and we feel newly born," said opposition lawmaker Freddy Guevara during an evening outdoor press conference.

Residents looking out from balconies in the eastern Caracas neighbourhood that is at the heart of the protest movement cheered loudly in support.

The next planned protest is on Saturday, when opponents are being asked to dress in white and march silently to commemorate the victims of the demonstration.

There is also a sit-in to block major highways planned for Monday.

General Motors announced early on Thursday that it was closing its operations in Venezuela after authorities seized its factory in the industrial city of Valencia, a move that could draw the Trump administration into the escalating chaos engulfing the nation.

The plant was confiscated on Wednesday as anti-Maduro protesters clashed with security forces and pro-government groups.

The seizure arose from an almost 20-year-old lawsuit brought by a former GM dealership in western Venezuela.

Hundreds of workers desperate for information about their jobs gathered at the plant on Thursday to meet with government and military officials as well as representatives of the dealership that brought the lawsuit.

The neglected factory has not produced a car since 2015, but GM still has 79 dealers that employ 3,900 people in Venezuela, where for decades it was the market leader.

The State Department said on Thursday it was reviewing details of the GM case but called on Venezuelan authorities to act swiftly and transparently to resolve the dispute.

A number of major Latin American governments, including Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, called on Venezuela to take steps to increase democratic order and halt the violence that has been swirling around the protests.

Across the country, clashes have been intense as protests grow in size and fervour.

The Supreme Court ruling reinvigorated Venezuela's fractious opposition, which had been struggling to channel growing disgust with Mr Maduro over widespread food shortages, triple-digit inflation and rampant crime.

Opponents are pushing for Mr Maduro's removal through early elections and the release of dozens of political prisoners.

The government last year abruptly postponed regional elections that the opposition was heavily favoured to win and it cut off a petition drive aimed at forcing a referendum seeking Mr Maduro's removal before elections scheduled for late next year.

But the government has not backed down.

Already drawing criticism for the GM seizure, Mr Maduro announced late on Thursday that he wanted an investigation into mobile phone operator Movistar for allegedly being part of the "coup-minded march" organised by his adversaries on Wednesday.

That march was the largest and most dramatic the country has seen in years.

He said the subsidiary of Spain's Telefonica "sent millions of messages to users every two hours" in support of Wednesday's protests.

As tensions mount, the government is using its almost-complete control of Venezuela's institutions to pursue its opponents.

On Wednesday alone, 565 protesters were arrested nationwide, according to Penal Forum, a local group that provides legal assistance to detainees.

It said 334 remained in jail on Thursday.

AP

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