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Protesters back on Caracas streets as death toll rises

Students have battled tear gas-throwing police in demonstrations across Venezuela's capital as a two-month-old protest movement that shows no signs of letting up claimed more lives.

"We are students, not terrorists!" students chanted, as they marched in Caracas.

Soldiers sprayed hundreds of protesters with tear gas at the Central University of Venezuela, with medics in gas masks attending to students with bloodied faces and limbs.

"Do you know how many dead there are?" Rafaela Requesens, a student leader, shouted at a wall of National Guard officers standing shoulder-to-shoulder and stopping protesters from advancing.

"They are your victims."

Gunfire erupted at a student gathering in El Tigre, a city south east of Caracas, leaving Juan Lopez, 33, dead and three others injured, according to the chief prosecutor's office.

Preliminary reports indicated an assailant fired at Mr Lopez, the president of a university federation, towards the end of the meeting, then fled on a motorcycle.

The student leader's death brought to at least 37 the number killed in Venezuela's political turmoil.

Earlier, authorities said a 38-year-old police officer in the central state of Carabobo died of his injuries after being shot during a protest on Wednesday that saw hundreds of thousands of people on the street nationwide.

The protest also left a 17-year-old student and musician dead.

More than 700 others have been wounded - no small matter in a country with crippling medical shortages.

Opposition leaders said 30 were injured in Thursday's student demonstrations. Overall, more than 1,000 have been arrested.

West of Caracas, in Valencia, there were reports of looting at several businesses and at least one factory, with thieves taking off with plastic crates filled with bottles, and even a forklift.

Protesters are demanding immediate presidential elections but Venezuela's president Nicolas Maduro accuses the opposition of attempting a coup and has responded with an initiative to rewrite the constitution.

Walking through an agricultural expo where he petted goats and sampled cheese on Thursday, Mr Maduro repeatedly reiterated his call for a special assembly tasked with defining Venezuela's future.

He added that the yet-to-be-created constituent body would decide the South American nation's destiny "for the next 50 years".

International pressure on Mr Maduro to hold elections is continuing to escalate amid his call for a constitution rewrite.

A group of bi-partisan US politicians sent a letter to US president Donald Trump on Thursday, urging him to apply new sanctions against individuals responsible for human rights abuses and to push for the delivery of humanitarian relief.

Eight Latin American nations issued a statement condemning the excessive use of force by Venezuelan authorities against protesters, saying such actions only "polarise Venezuelan society even more".

Venezuelan classical music maestro Gustavo Dudamel spoke out against events in his country, calling on Mr Maduro to listen to the protesters.

In an online essay, I Raise My Voice, he urged Mr Maduro to reduce political tensions.

"We must stop ignoring the just cry of the people suffocated by an intolerable crisis," said Mr Dudamel, who is serving as the Los Angeles Philharmonic's musical director.

Venezuelans and fellow classical music performers have criticised Mr Dudamel in the past for being close to Mr Maduro.

AP

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