Clashes have broken out in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, as hundreds of thousands of people held rival protests amid rising tensions over a deepening political crisis in the oil-rich country.
Security forces on Wednesday fired tear gas as anti-government demonstrators staged what they dubbed the “mother of all marches” against President Nicolas Maduro, accusing him of eroding democracy and plunging the economy into chaos.
Crowds swelled to hundreds of thousands, including Maduro supporters who held a counter-demonstration at the urging of the president.
READ MORE: Venezuela crisis explained
On the capital’s northwest side, a student was shot in the head by motorcycle-riding gunmen who also threw tear gas canisters into a crowd of protesters, witnesses told the AFP news agency.
Local media later reported that the student, identified as Carlos Moreno, had died in a hospital. Witnesses and a family member told the Reuters news agency that Moreno, 18, was on his way to play football and did not plan to take part in the demonstration when government supporters approached an opposition gathering and fired shots.
Later, in the opposition hotbed of San Cristobal near the Colombia border, university student Paola Ramirez died after being shot by armed men on motorbikes as she was leaving the protest, relatives and witnesses told Reuters.
The public prosecutor’s office said it was investigating both cases.
Imágenes de la marcha pacífica en #Carabobo #19vzlaenlacalle 1/3 vía @DanyCosmoVZLA pic.twitter.com/0ZWCXdomSw
— PAPITO Rodríguez (@Bejumero) April 19, 2017
Translation: Images of the peaceful march in #Carabobo # 19vzlaenlacalle by Rodriguez, Mayor of the inhabitants of the Municipality of Bejuma
Waving the country’s red yellow and blue flags and shouting “No more dictatorship” and “Maduro out”, tens of thousands of protesters converged from 26 different points spread across Caracas to attempt to march downtown to the Ombudsman’s office.
|Demonstrators clash with riot police during the so-called “mother of all marches” against Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas [Christian Veron/Reuters]|
Previous efforts to march there have been blocked by the National Guard. In many cases protests have ended with youths throwing rocks squaring off against security forces spraying tear gas in clashes that last for many hours.
“I participate in these protests, out of a sense of responsibility for being Venezuelan. I love this land that gave me education, work and well-being. We need to face a critical situation, we are in a country that is collapsing,” farmer Omar Leal, told Al Jazeera.
The march followed a fortnight of violent protests, in which five people have been killed, triggered by a Supreme Court decision in March to assume the powers of the opposition-led Congress.
That move was later reversed, but it had the added effect of energising Venezuela’s fractious opposition, which had been struggling to channel growing anger against Maduro over widespread food shortages and triple-digit inflation.
The opposition is now pushing for Maduro’s removal and the release of scores of political prisoners.
“The aim of these protests is to generate a definitive change of government and institutions,” protester Eduard Grosse told Al Jazeera. “Although part of the population demands elections, the majority wants a radical change; we don’t want to wait and see the destruction of the country.”
|A demonstrator clashes with riot police during the so-called “mother of all marches” against Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela [Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters]|
Maduro, in turn, has urged his supporters to defend the socialist “revolution” launched by his predecessor Hugo Chavez in 1999.
The president is expected to address the counter-march of government supporters later on Wednesday, on the day Venezuela is celebrating its declaration of independence from Spain two centuries ago.
El Pueblo Revolucionario ha desbordado las calles de Venezuela para defender la Patria #YoSiMarchoPorLaPatria https://t.co/o1QzuBXffW
— Nicolás Maduro (@NicolasMaduro) April 19, 2017
Translation: The Revolutionary People have overflowed the streets of Venezuela to defend the Homeland, President Maduro wrote.
Socialist officials dismissed the opposition marches as efforts to destabilise the government, pointing to barricades of burning trash mounted by protesters and vandalism of public property.
“They’ve got the right to march but marching isn’t burning stuff, throwing rocks,” Jahil Marcano, a 48-year-old construction worker who had joined the pro-government rally told Reuters. “They view us Chavistas with hatred.”
The president also signed orders on TV late on Tuesday activating the “green phase” military plans to defend Venezuela against what he describes as US-backed attempts to sow chaos and overthrow him.
He also said authorities in recent hours had rounded up unnamed members of an underground cell of conspirators at Caracas hotels, including some armed people who were allegedly planning to stir up violence at the march.
The opposition rejected his comments as a desperate attempt to intimidate Venezuelans from exercising their constitutional right to protest.
Eleven Latin American countries issued a joint statement this week calling on authorities to set a time frame for elections to “allow for a quick solution to the crisis that Venezuela is living through”.
|Fears of violence at rival rallies in Venezuela [2:50]|
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies