At least 12 killed amid protests and looting in Venezuela
In this April 20, 2017 photo, a woman is aided by fellow demonstrators after falling, overcome by tear gas, during anti-government protests in Caracas, Venezuela. Tens of thousands of protesters asking for the resignation of President Nicolas Maduro flooded the streets again, one day after three people were killed and hundreds arrested in the biggest anti-government demonstrations in years. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
Joshua Goodman And Fabiola Sanchez, The Associated Press
Published Friday, April 21, 2017 2:27PM EDT
Last Updated Friday, April 21, 2017 3:56PM EDT
CARACAS, Venezuela -- At least 12 people were killed overnight following looting and violence in Venezuela's capital amid a spiraling political crisis, authorities said Friday.
Most of the deaths took place in El Valle, a working class neighbourhood near Caracas' biggest military base where opposition leaders say a group of people were hit with an electrical current while trying to loot a bakery protected by an electric fence.
Two days of massive protests on the streets of Caracas against the government of President Nicolas Maduro spilled into a violent night in several parts of the city, with residents in El Valle witnessing repetitive gunfire, street barricades set aflame and more than a dozen businesses looted. Amid the confusion, mothers and newborn children had to be evacuated from a maternity hospital named after the late leader Hugo Chavez when it was swamped with tear gas.
The Public Ministry said the violence left 11 people dead in El Valle, all men between the ages of 17 and 45. Another death was reported east of Caracas in El Sucre. Six others were injured.
Opposition leaders blamed the government for repressing protesters with tear gas but standing idly by as businesses were looted. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez pointed the finger at the opposition, saying armed groups controlled by them were responsible for the attack at the hospital.
"We reject and do not accept those irresponsible declarations," said Henrique Capriles, a former presidential candidate who the government recently barred from running for public office.
Earlier Friday, officials reported that one of the dead was Mervins Guitian. The young Venezuelan man was fatally shot when he was returning home late from work on Thursday and got caught in the middle of late-night street clashes. Vicente Paez, a local councilman, said Guitian was an employee of a Caracas-area city governed by an opposition mayor and didn't join the protests. It wasn't clear who shot him and there was no immediate comment from authorities.
Venezuelan social media was ablaze late into the night with grainy cellphone videos of light-armoured vehicles plowing down dark streets to control pockets of protesters who set up burning barricades in several neighbourhoods.
Vice-President Tareck El Aissami said Friday the country is facing an "unconventional war" led by opposition groups working in concert with criminal gangs. He said opposition claims government forces were responsible for launching tear gas at the maternity hospital were another attempt to demoralize a people who have "decided to break ties with the bourgeoisie forever."
Overall, at least 20 people have been killed in the unrest generated after the government-stacked Supreme Court gutted congress of its last vestiges of power three weeks ago -- a move later reversed amid a storm of international criticism. Opposition members say they do not intend to ease up on protests demanding new elections as they decry a government they deem a dictatorship responsible for triple-digit inflation, rising crime and food shortages.
"Twenty days of resistance and we feel newly born," said opposition lawmaker Freddy Guevara during an evening, outdoor press conference as residents looking out from balconies in an eastern Caracas neighbourhood at the heart of the protest movement cheered loudly in support.
The next planned protest is Saturday, when opponents are being asked to dress in white and march silently to commemorate the victims of the demonstration. There's also a sit-in to block major highways planned for Monday.
General Motors announced early 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.
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 Maduro over widespread food shortages, triple-digit inflation and rampant crime.
Opponents are pushing for 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 Maduro's removal before elections scheduled for late next year.
But the government hasn't backed down.
Already drawing criticism for the GM seizure, Maduro announced late Thursday that he wanted an investigation into cellphone operator Movistar for allegedly being part of the "coup-minded march" organized by his adversaries 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 Thursday.
Associated Press photographer Juan Carlos Hernandez in Valencia and AP Auto Writer Tom Krisher in Detroit contributed to this report.