Venezuela seeks opposition figure’s arrest; protest death toll rises
CARACAS, Venezuela -- The Venezuelan government was seeking to arrest a top associate of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez on Friday as the official death toll from more than two weeks of violence in the country rose to 17.
Protests continued to rage in parts of Venezuela, despite a days-long holiday declared by President Nicolas Maduro beginning Thursday in hope of damping the demonstrations and violence. Many businesses sent employees home through at least Tuesday.
Clashes between demonstrators and government supporters and authorities were reported Friday in eastern Tachira and central Aragua states. Tear gas and rubber bullets were used to disperse marchers in Tachira; looting was reported this week in Aragua.
Authorities issued an arrest warrant Thursday for Carlos Vecchio, national political coordinator of the Popular Will party, an anti-government group formed by Lopez before his own arrest. The charges against Vecchio include incitement to violence, the same accusation leveled at Lopez, former mayor of a Caracas borough.
Lopez, who was jailed Feb. 18, and his supporters have insisted their protests were nonviolent and that the clashes were caused by harassing, motorcycle-riding supporters of the government called “collectives.” They accused the Maduro administration of trying to criminalize dissent.
Vecchio’s whereabouts was not clear Friday.
This month’s protests began as a student march against violent crime in Tachira but have expanded to encompass the opposition’s discontent with sky-high inflation, acute scarcities of food and the weak economy.
In comments to reporters, Atty. Gen. Luisa Ortega Diaz said that in addition to the 17 killed, 261 people have been injured across Venezuela. At least 59 are in police custody in connection with the violence.
Ortega Diaz said more than one-third of those detained are students. One focus of the ongoing protests has been the demands of friends and family that the students be released.
Also on Friday, the Democratic Unity Panel, an opposition coalition of parties known by the Spanish initials MUD, criticized the “peace conference” held Wednesday at Miraflores, the presidential palace.
According to a statement, the conference set up no practical framework for dialogue between Venezuela’s deeply polarized political factions, and the arrests of protesters were continuing even amid the talks.
On Friday, Maduro said he would set up peace panels in “hot” states, including Tachira and Merida, and that he was open to dialogue with students. He named Vice President Jorge Arreaza to lead the talks.
In New York, Human Rights Watch called on the Organization of American States to meet to discuss alleged human rights abuses of demonstrators this month at the hands of authorities and government vigilantes.
In her comments Friday, Ortega Diaz denied the government has violated human rights and said her office has opened 27 cases to investigate alleged abuses.
Special correspondents Mogollon reported from Caracas and Kraul from Bogota, Colombia.
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