Venezuela tense ahead of dueling demonstrations

JOSHUA GOODMAN VICENTE MARQUEZ Associated Press Published:

CARACAS, Venezuela (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 Ramirez by force and speeding him away on a motorcycle.

The dramatic scene underscored the rising tensions that could spill over into violence Tuesday 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 on Monday 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, among activists who have spent the past week on the streets alternating between peaceful protests by day and battles with police at night, marched to Venezuela's telecommunications regulator Monday. They demanded it lift all restrictions on the news media's coverage of the unfolding political crisis, which is being fed by complaints about hardships ranging from 56 percent inflation to rampant crime.

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 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.

Maduro accuses 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. 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 Tuesday to the Interior Ministry, where he'll deliver a petition demanding the government protect citizens' rights to peacefully protest.

"I haven't committed any crime," said Lopez, who hasn't 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, Lopez aides rerouted their Tuesday protest away from the central plaza in Caracas where a competing march of pro-government oil workers will take place.

Maduro called for the Tuesday march 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.

As evidence to support those claims, Jaua on Monday presented what he said was a series of emails from embassy officials from 2009-11 soliciting funding from Washington to support student groups in Venezuela. He said more recent communications also exist, but are under wraps during an investigation.

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, Jaua said.

In Washington, the State Department said it hadn't received any formal notification of the expulsions. It said reports that the U.S. is helping organize protests are "baseless and false" and called on the Venezuelan government to engage the opposition in "meaningful dialogue."

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Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez and Andrew Rosati contributed to this report.