Maduro supporters march following week of violent protests in Caracas

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro accused his rivals of stoking unrest Saturday, speaking to thousands of supporters Caracas. This week three protesters were shot dead during an opposition-led march.

By , Reuters

Around 100 protesters were arrested in recent days in Venezuela and, according to the government, a quarter of them have been released

Thousands of supporters of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro marched in the center of Caracas on Saturday to call for peace and make a show of political strength after this week's deadly violence at street protests.

In a well-off eastern part of the capital, several hundred protesters gathered to demand the president resign, denouncing him over grievances ranging from political repression to daily issues such inflation, shortages and rampant crime.

Almost a year after he succeeded the late Hugo Chavez, Maduro accuses his rivals of stoking unrest to try and stage a coup like the one 12 years ago that briefly ousted Chavez. There are, however, no indications the current turmoil could oust him.

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"You want to see people in the streets? We'll give you people in the streets," the president told the rally, to loud applause and cheers of "No to fascism!"

Thundering at the crowd from a pastel-colored stage plastered with the slogan "People of Peace," he mocked the demands of protesters who want him to step down.

"I'm not going to give up one millimeter of the power the Venezuelan people have given me ... nothing will stop me from building this revolution which commandant Chavez left us!"

Late on Friday police used tear gas and water cannons to clear about 1,000 protesters from a square in eastern Caracas where some of them had lit fires and blocked streets.

Venezuela's state prosecutor said 25 of 99 people arrested in connection with this week's violence had been freed pending trial, and that the others would be processed within hours.

The protesters insist they will defy Maduro's ban on unauthorized demonstrations, put in place after three people were shot dead this week following an opposition-led march.

"The more the government tries to repress us, the firmer we'll be. We are going to be in the streets everyday," said 22-year-old student Andrea Fernandez, her cheeks painted with the blue, yellow and red of the Venezuelan flag.

"This is a peaceful protest and we're going to see results soon," she said, speaking alongside several hundred opposition supporters who gathered in the wealthy eastern Caracas district of Las Mercedes to sing and chant slogans.

HOST OF COMPLAINTS

The protesters blame Maduro for a host of complaints ranging from the fast-rising cost of living, shortages of basic products in stores, and one of the highest murder rates in the world.

Demonstrations that end in bloodshed could, however, play into the president's hands by helping him unite factions within the ruling Socialist Party, divide the opposition coalition where many question the wisdom of the street tactics - and distract people from economic problems.

Maduro, a burly 51-year-old former bus driver and union boss, has staked his presidency of maintaining Chavez's radical socialism. He says Venezuela faces an "economic war" being waged against it by the opposition - backed, he says, by shadowy U.S. financiers - which is being worsened by speculators.

Supporters say he is the victim of Western "imperial" propaganda and saboteurs seeking to discredit Chavez's legacy.

"We have to celebrate the revolution, which is love and peace," said Kaina Lovera, a 16-year-old at the "Chavista" rally wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with the late leader's face.

Maduro's critics say he is wrecking the economy by sticking with failed Chavez-era policies such as currency and price controls, which many local economists blame for the shortages.

Among those critics is hardline opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, whom the government calls the "face of fascism" and the intellectual author of the violence.

The 42-year-old U.S.-educated economist says peaceful marches organized by his Popular Will party have been infiltrated by provocateurs and attacked by militant pro-government gangs known locally as "colectivos."

Lopez remains in his home in the Chacao district of eastern Caracas where he was once mayor, colleagues said, despite a judge's arrest warrant for him.

It was not immediately clear why police had not acted on the warrant, though such a move could fuel further protests. Maduro demanded on Saturday that Lopez surrender himself.

"The opposition organize these violent groups, and then they hide and cry," the president said. "You fugitive from justice, trembling with fear, you fascist coward! Hand yourself in!"

Additional reporting by Diego Ore and Eyanir Chinea; Writing by Daniel Wallis

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