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Opposition, pro-government rallies grip Venezuela

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelans on both sides of the nation's bitter political divide took to the streets on Saturday after two weeks of mass protests that have President Nicolas Maduro scrambling to squash an increasingly militant opposition movement.

In Caracas, tens of thousands of opponents of President Nicolas Maduro filled several city blocks in their biggest rally to date against his 10-month-old government. Across town, at the presidential palace, Maduro addressed a much-smaller crowd of mostly female supporters dressed in the red of his socialist party.

The dueling protests capped a violent week in which the government jailed Leopoldo Lopez, a fiery hard-liner who roused the opposition following its defeat in December's mayoral elections, and dozens of other student activists. The violence has left at least 10 people dead on both sides and injured more than 100.

At the opposition rally, in wealthier eastern Caracas, two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles urged supporters to keep pressuring the government to resolve problems ranging from rising crime to galloping 56 percent inflation in the oil-rich nation.

"If you (Maduro) can't, then it's time to go," an impassioned Capriles told the crowd.

Capriles has frequently criticized Lopez's strategy of taking to the streets without much support beyond the opposition's middle-class base. He downplayed those differences on Saturday. Recalling his own four-month confinement in 2002 in the same military prison where Lopez is being held, he vowed to fight for his fellow opposition leader's release.

"We may have our differences, but there's something bigger than us all that unites us, which is Venezuela, damn it!" Capriles told the roaring crowd. Lopez's wife, Lilian Tintori, was at his side.

After the opposition rally broke up in the late afternoon, about 1,000 stragglers erected barricades of trash and other debris and threw rocks and bottles at police and National Guardsmen. The troops responded with volleys of tear gas to prevent the students from reaching a highway and blocking traffic.

No injuries were reported.

Elsewhere in the capital, government backers filled a wide avenue in a march to the presidential palace accompanied by sound trucks blaring music and slogans. The crowd made up mostly of women danced in the street to live music and carried photos of the late president Hugo Chavez while vendors hawked calendars emblazoned with his image.

First lady Cilia Flores called on supporters to be alert for attempts by the opposition to incite deadlier violence in the days ahead to create conditions for a Ukraine-like power grab.

"Venezuela isn't Ukraine," Flores, who rarely speaks in public told a crowd of women. "The right-wing fascists aren't going to be able to impose themselves."

Maduro said he won't pull security forces off the streets until the opposition abandons violence and accepts his invitation for dialogue.

"This elected president, the son of Chavez, is going to keep protecting the people," he said while holding up what he said was an improvised explosive device used by protesters to attack government buildings and security forces. "Nobody is going to blackmail me."

The opposition protest in Caracas coincided with marches across the country, most of which also ended peacefully.

Opposition, pro-government rallies grip Venezuela 02/22/14 [Last modified: Sunday, February 23, 2014 12:06am]

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