CARACAS: Protests erupted in Caracas late on Friday after Venezuela’s attorney general charged jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez with responsibility for anti-government demonstrations that have shaken the country since February.
Riot police fired tear gas at crowds of rock-throwing demonstrators in the Chacao neighborhood in what has become an almost regular nightly ritual.
In an ominous sign of possible escalation, a masked man was photographed moving among the protesters armed with what appeared to be a rifle with a telescopic sight. Leftist President Nicolas Maduro more than once has decried the existence of sharpshooters among the most radical protesters. The government claims the protests are part of a coup attempt orchestrated by the United States and right-wing Colombians.
The protesters, in turn, have long complained about harassment from gangs of armed, semi-official pro-government thugs. Thirty-nine people have died and another 608 have been wounded since crowds took to the streets in early February to protest Venezuela’s soaring crime, high inflation and shortages of essential goods.
Lopez, a Harvard-educated economist who is leader of the Popular Will party, has been held in a military prison since he was arrested on February 18 in the midst of a massive opposition protest rally. Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz told a press conference that Lopez was formally charged with inciting violence, arson, damage to property and conspiracy.
The action stems from Lopez’s public support for the student-led street protests that have rocked the country since they began February 4 in the western city of San Cristobal and spread to several other major cities.
Lopez and some other opposition leaders support a strategy dubbed “the exit” that is aimed at generating pressure through street protests for Maduro — the handpicked successor to late socialist icon Hugo Chavez — to resign.