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Venezuela tense ahead of protests


A demonstrator covers her mouth with a rag to protest against government censorship, during a march in Caracas (AP)

A demonstrator covers her mouth with a rag to protest against government censorship, during a march in Caracas (AP)

A demonstrator covers her mouth with a rag to protest against government censorship, during a march in Caracas (AP)

A crowd of anti-government activists wrested free an opposition politician as he was being hauled away in handcuffs by security forces following a raid on the party headquarters of President Nicolas Maduro's biggest foe.

Dario Ramirez, a city councilman, shouted "I'm an elected official" as national guardsmen, surrounded by journalists and party activists, frantically looked for an escape route from the Caracas shopping mall where they took him into custody.

Once outside, dozens of activists banging pots and pans in protest attacked the squad, freeing Mr Ramirez by force and speeding him away on a motorcycle.

The dramatic scene highlighted the rising tensions that could spill over into violence today when pro- and anti-government activists hold rival demonstrations in the capital.

Mr Ramirez belongs to the Popular Will party led by Leopoldo Lopez, who has been accused by Mr Maduro of inciting violence and leading a US-backed conspiracy to oust him from power.

Mr Maduro's government yesterday gave three US Embassy officials 48 hours to leave the country, accusing the Obama administration of siding with opposition protesters.

Foreign minister Elias Jaua said the senior US consular officers were trying to infiltrate Venezuelan universities, the hotbed of the recent unrest, under the cover of doing visa outreach.

The US denied the charges, and is expressing concern about rising violence and the government's attempts to block peaceful protests.

Secretary of State John Kerry said that Mr Lopez's arrest would have a "chilling effect" on Venezuelans' right to free expression.

More than 1,000 students, who have spent the past week on the streets alternating between peaceful protests by day and fighting police at night, yesterday marched to Venezuela's telecommunications regulator to demand it lift all restrictions on the news media's coverage of the unfolding political crisis.

Police repelled the activists with tear gas and rubber bullets but there were no reports of serious injuries.

Several journalists have been harassed and detained in the past week. Colombia's news channel NTN24 was taken off cable television while covering protests on Wednesday that ended in a fight between student demonstrators and security forces backed by armed pro-government militias.

Three people were killed during those clashes last week - two students and a pro-government demonstrator. News videos and photographs taken at the time indicate at least one of the students was killed when pro-government militia members fired directly at protesters.

Mr Maduro accuses Mr Lopez of being behind the violence and of leading a "fascist" plot to overthrow him two months after his party's candidates won mayoral elections by a landslide.

He dared Mr Lopez, a Harvard-educated former mayor, to turn himself in after a court ordered his arrest on charges ranging from homicide to vandalism of public property.

Mr Lopez said he does not fear going to jail to defend his beliefs. In a video message on Sunday, he called on supporters to march with him in white shirts today to the interior ministry, where he will deliver a petition demanding the government protect citizens' rights to peacefully protest.

"I haven't committed any crime," said Mr Lopez, who has not been seen in public since a Wednesday night news conference after the bloodshed.

"If there is a decision to legally throw me in jail I'll submit myself to this persecution."

To avoid another violent clash, his aides rerouted today's protest away from the central plaza in Caracas where a competing march of pro-government oil workers will take place.

Mr Maduro called for today's march by supporters in a televised address on Sunday in which he accused the US of trying to stir up unrest to regain dominance of South America's largest oil producer.

The three expelled officials - Breeann Marie McCusker, Jeffrey Gordon Elsen and Kristofer Lee Clark - all enjoyed the rank of second secretary, and two of them were vice consuls, Mr Jaua said.

In Washington, the State Department said it had not received any formal notification of the expulsions.

It said reports that the US is helping organise protests are "baseless and false" and called on the Venezuelan government to engage the opposition in "meaningful dialogue".