Venezuelan protesters demand release of arrested activists

Demonstrators step up pressure on President Maduro after 41 are arrested in fresh clashes

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 March, 2014, 3:21am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 March, 2014, 3:21am


Anti-government protesters have called for the release of dozens of activists who have been arrested during three weeks of violent demonstrations.

Protesters from a radical opposition group formed a convoy of cars and bikes in eastern Caracas after fresh violence on Friday saw pitched battles between security forces and demonstrators.

A total of 18 people have died in the demonstrations against President Nicolas Maduro's government, according to official figures.

Protesters on Saturday vowed to boycott Venezuela's annual carnival celebrations as a mark of respect to the dead.

These things are aimed at triggering a backlash from security forces

"We honour the dead. No carnival, there is nothing to celebrate," engineering student Argenis Arteaga said at the protest.

Saturday's demonstration came after at least 41 people, including several foreign journalists, were arrested during Friday's clashes. National Guard security forces used water cannons and tear gas to break up student-led demonstrations in the city's wealthy Chacao district.

Hooded protesters set up barricades and responded with Molotov cocktails.

Maduro has labelled the protests that began on February 4 as a Washington-backed attempted "coup." He claims that radical opposition leaders have joined students angered by high inflation and goods shortage in plotting to topple his government.

Friday's arrests included eight foreigners who were being "held for international terrorism", state VTV television said.

Venezuela's journalist association SNTP said one of the foreigners was US reporter Andrew Rosati who writes for the Miami Herald.

Rosati was detained for half an hour and released after being "struck in the face and his abdomen" by security forces, the SNTP said on Twitter.

Also detained and released was a team of journalists from the Associated Press, it said.

The SNTP also said Italian photographer Francesca Commissari, who works for the local daily El Nacional, was being held.

Protest organiser Alfredo Romero said he "spoke personally with Francesca Commissari", adding: "She's OK." Romero, president of the Venezuelan Penal Forum, wrote on Twitter. Government officials released no details on the arrest of foreigners.

In a separate incident, Maduro said National Guard members were "ambushed" and shot at in Valencia, Venezuela's economic hub. One died from being shot in the eye and another was shot twice in the leg.

"All these things are aimed at triggering a backlash from security forces," Maduro said.

"Justice must prevail against implacable murderers and those preparing paramilitary groups... to hide behind alleged protests and seek civil war."

The Venezuelan Penal Forum, meanwhile, said 33 cases of "cruel and inhuman treatment or torture" have been reported to the public ombudsman.

The Venezuelan government said it was investigating 27 cases of human rights abuses, though it provided no details of possible wrongdoing.