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Venezuela

Country tense ahead of protests

President accuses U.S. of involvement

  • A demonstrator covers her mouth with a rag to prostest government censorship, during a march to Venezuelan Telecommunications Regulator Office or CONATEL in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, Feb17, 2014. Students, who’ve spent the past week on the streets alternating between peaceful protests by day and battles with police at night, marched on Monday to Venezuela’s telecom regulator to demand it lift all restrictions on the media’s coverage of the unfolding political crisis. (AP Photo/Alejandro Cegarra)

    A demonstrator covers her mouth with a rag to prostest government censorship, during a march to Venezuelan Telecommunications Regulator Office or CONATEL in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, Feb17, 2014. Students, who’ve spent the past week on the streets alternating between peaceful protests by day and battles with police at night, marched on Monday to Venezuela’s telecom regulator to demand it lift all restrictions on the media’s coverage of the unfolding political crisis. (AP Photo/Alejandro Cegarra)

  • Students shout slogans against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro during a march to the Venezuelan Telecommunications Regulator Office or CONATEL in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, Feb17, 2014. More students, who’ve spent the past week on the streets alternating between peaceful protests by day and battles with police at night, marched on Monday to Venezuela’s telecom regulator to demand it lift all restrictions on media’s coverage of the unfolding political crisis. (AP Photo/Alejandro Cegarra)

    Students shout slogans against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro during a march to the Venezuelan Telecommunications Regulator Office or CONATEL in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, Feb17, 2014. More students, who’ve spent the past week on the streets alternating between peaceful protests by day and battles with police at night, marched on Monday to Venezuela’s telecom regulator to demand it lift all restrictions on media’s coverage of the unfolding political crisis. (AP Photo/Alejandro Cegarra)

  • Students shout slogans against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro during a march to Venezuelan Telecommunications Regulator Office or CONATEL in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, Feb17, 2014. The students, who’ve spent the past week on the streets alternating between peaceful protests by day and battles with police at night, marched on Monday to Venezuela’s telecom regulator to demand it lift all restrictions on the media’s coverage of the unfolding political crisis. (AP Photo/Alejandro Cegarra)

    Students shout slogans against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro during a march to Venezuelan Telecommunications Regulator Office or CONATEL in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, Feb17, 2014. The students, who’ve spent the past week on the streets alternating between peaceful protests by day and battles with police at night, marched on Monday to Venezuela’s telecom regulator to demand it lift all restrictions on the media’s coverage of the unfolding political crisis. (AP Photo/Alejandro Cegarra)

  • A demonstrator covers her mouth with a rag to prostest government censorship, during a march to Venezuelan Telecommunications Regulator Office or CONATEL in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, Feb17, 2014. Students, who’ve spent the past week on the streets alternating between peaceful protests by day and battles with police at night, marched on Monday to Venezuela’s telecom regulator to demand it lift all restrictions on the media’s coverage of the unfolding political crisis. (AP Photo/Alejandro Cegarra)
  • Students shout slogans against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro during a march to the Venezuelan Telecommunications Regulator Office or CONATEL in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, Feb17, 2014. More students, who’ve spent the past week on the streets alternating between peaceful protests by day and battles with police at night, marched on Monday to Venezuela’s telecom regulator to demand it lift all restrictions on media’s coverage of the unfolding political crisis. (AP Photo/Alejandro Cegarra)
  • Students shout slogans against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro during a march to Venezuelan Telecommunications Regulator Office or CONATEL in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, Feb17, 2014. The students, who’ve spent the past week on the streets alternating between peaceful protests by day and battles with police at night, marched on Monday to Venezuela’s telecom regulator to demand it lift all restrictions on the media’s coverage of the unfolding political crisis. (AP Photo/Alejandro Cegarra)

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 Ramirez by force and speeding him away on a motorcycle.

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

Ramirez belongs to the Popular Will party led by Leopoldo Lopez, the target of a police manhunt accused by Maduro of inciting violence and leading a U.S.-backed conspiracy to oust him from power.

Maduro’s government yesterday gave three U.S. Embassy officials 48 hours to leave the country, charging that the Obama administration is siding with opposition protesters.

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

The U.S. 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 Saturday that 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 battles with police at night, marched yesterday to Venezuela’s telecommunications regulator to demand it lift all restrictions on the news media’s coverage of the unfolding political crisis.

The 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 Wednesday that ended in a battle between student demonstrators and security forces backed by armed pro-government militias.

Three people were killed during those clashes – 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.

At a rally with thousands of supporters Saturday, Maduro dared 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.

Lopez said he doesn’t fear going to jail to defend his beliefs. In a video message Sunday, he called on supporters to march with him in white shirts today to the Interior Ministry.

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

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

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