The Venezuelan government ordered paratroopers on Thursday to a border city where growing student protests began more than two weeks ago, with President Nicolas Maduro angrily rejecting US calls for dialogue.
The nationwide demonstrations led by students and the opposition have left at least four people dead and dozens hurt in the biggest challenge to Maduro since he took power from the late Hugo Chavez last year.
There have been near-daily protests and rallies, some of them violent, in the capital Caracas and other cities, over what Maduro’s critics say are deteriorating economic conditions, rampant street crime, corruption and bleak job prospects.
Maduro’s leftist government – which is sitting on the world’s largest proven oil reserves – rushed a battalion of paratroopers to the city of San Cristobal, the birthplace of the demonstrations that began on February 4.
The military response came in response to claims from the government that Colombians were crossing the border there “to carry out paramilitary missions” in Venezuela.
Shops were closed and streets eerily quiet in San Cristobal, capital of the western border state of Tachira, where there have been almost daily clashes between protesters and security forces.
Maduro, meanwhile, threatened to silence CNN – the only source of live news for Venezuelans apart from social media – over what he called the US broadcaster’s “propaganda war”. He shot back at US President Barack Obama, who has urged Venezuela to release detained protesters and address the “legitimate grievances” of its people.
Maduro’s government said it “emphatically repudiates” Obama’s remarks, accusing the US president of “a new and crude interference in the internal affairs of our country”.
On Sunday, Maduro ordered the expulsion of three US diplomats, accusing them of meeting student leaders to conspire under the guise of offering them visas. Washington denies the allegations.
Maduro also came under attack from US pop icon Madonna, who on Thursday accused Maduro’s government of “fascism” over its handling of the roiling demonstrations.
In a post alongside a picture of Maduro on image-sharing social network Instagram, Madonna accused the Venezuelan leader of human rights violations, while also condemning authorities in Russia and Ukraine.
“Apparantly [sic] Maduro is not familiar with the phrase ‘Human Rights’! Facism [sic] is alive and thriving in Venezuela and Russia,” Madonna wrote. “Ukraine isn’t far behind!”
Apparantly Maduro is not familiar with the phrase "Human Rights"! Facism is alive and thriving in Venezuela and... http://t.co/flSihs3h4T 
— Madonna (@Madonna) February 20, 2014 
Coup a ‘fabrication’
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who has kept a low profile during the protests, challenged Maduro to prove his claims that the demonstrations were part of a conspiracy to overthrow his government.
“Is this a coup or an auto-coup?” he asked. “The only one who has talked about a coup d’etat has been the government. It is a fabrication by government actors,” he said.
Prominent opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who has helped spearhead the protests, is being held at a military jail where his lawyers say he could remain for up to 45 days awaiting trial.
Lopez, a 42-year-old Harvard-educated economist, has been charged with instigating violence, property damage and criminal association, but not homicide as had been threatened.
Student protest leaders called on Thursday for a march for peace, urging “Venezuelan civil society to respond to the violence with white flowers”.
The students convened a rally, with flowers, in Las Mercedes, an upscale Caracas neighbourhood of embassies, trendy restaurants and luxury condominiums.
But their plea fell on deaf ears, with yet more disturbances in other parts of the capital.
Demonstrators burned tires and garbage in eastern Caracas but dispersed later without incident – a marked change from the clashes with police of previous days.
“We are not going to attack the police as in previous days. We do not want more violence. We do not want more deaths. The idea is not to destroy the city,” said Jose Gomez, a 23-year-old law student. He stood next to a fire bonfire in a plaza where some 400 young people had gathered.
Tear gas fired
Late on Wednesday in Caracas, police fired tear gas and buckshot to disperse hundreds of anti-government protesters. Burning barricades, police assaults, and intimidating sweeps by pro-government civilians on motorcycles kept residents on edge through the night.
The archbishop of Caracas appealed to the government to rein in “armed groups” who he said were “acting freely, with impunity”.
“How is it possible that there could be eight or nine wounded in Valencia and a girl dead in the vilest manner simply because an armed group attacked a peaceful protest,” Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino said.
He was referring to the latest fatality, a 21-year-old beauty queen who was shot in the head on Tuesday at a protest rally in the northern city of Valencia.
At the same time, Maduro threatened on Thursday to expel television network CNN from the country if it did not “rectify” the way it has covered deadly political protests.
Local television networks have provided almost no live coverage of the protests against Maduro, which began last month over a wide range of complaints including inflation, violent crime, corruption and shortages of basic products.
As result, many opposition supporters have turned to CNN Espanol, available to some cable TV subscribers, which in recent days has been the only television to offer live broadcasts of opposition press conferences.
“I’ve asked the [information] minister to tell CNN we have started the administrative process to remove them from Venezuela if they don’t rectify [their behaviour],” Maduro said on state TV. “Enough! I won’t accept war propaganda against Venezuela.”
“We do not have an official comment at this time on President Maduro’s most recent comments about CNN,” Bridget Leininger, a CNN spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.
Maduro has already drawn criticism from press freedom groups including Reporters Without Borders by ordering a Colombia-based network, NTN24, taken off cable in Venezuela after it showed live coverage of violence that started last week. The communication minister said NTN24 had been “focused on overthrowing the constitutional government and stirring up hatred and violence among Venezuelans”.