Venezuela protesters, troops clash

Updated: 2014-02-21 13:25


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That brought a typically scathing response from Caracas. Obama's comments were "a new and gross interference" in its internal affairs, the government said in a statement.

"Independent governments and the people of the world want the US government to explain why it funds, encourages and defends opposition leaders who promote violence in our country."

Street protests were the backdrop to a short-lived coup against Chavez in 2002 before military loyalists and supporters helped bring him back. There is no evidence the military, which was the decisive factor in 2002, may turn on Maduro now.

Countries around Latin America are watching closely. Political allies such as Cuba, which receives Venezuelan oil on preferential terms, have denounced an opposition "coup attempt," while other nations have called for dialogue between the two sides.

Lopez's defiant stance has won him admiration among opposition supporters frustrated by 15 years of electoral losses, first to Chavez and then to Maduro.

But detractors call him a dangerous hothead. He has frequently squabbled with fellow opposition leaders and was involved in the 2002 coup, even helping arrest a minister.

Though the majority of demonstrators have been peaceful, an increasingly prominent radical fringe has been attacking police, blocking roads and vandalizing buildings.

While the Caracas protests began in middle-class neighborhoods and are still strongest there, sporadic demonstrations have also spread to poorer areas of the city, residents say.

Rights groups say the police response has been excessive, and some detainees say they were tortured.

Venezuela's main opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, who lost to Maduro in last year's presidential election, disagrees with Lopez's street tactics but backs protesters' grievances and has condemned the government response.

"How many more deaths do they want?" he said to reporters on Thursday, urging opposition activists to avoid violence.

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