Venezuela police fire tear gas on demo, lawmaker hurt

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Venezuela police fire tear gas on demo, lawmaker hurt
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  • Nicolás Maduro
    Nicolás Maduro
    53rd President of Venezuela

Caracas (AFP) - A top Venezuelan opposition lawmaker was injured when police fired tear gas and forcefully broke up protesters demanding the authorities move forward with a recall referendum against President Nicolas Maduro.

It was the fourth time in recent days that police have cracked down on protesters trying to march on the National Electoral Board (CNE), the gatekeeper to a referendum the opposition says must be held this year to stop a country in crisis from exploding into unrest.

Late Thursday, CNE official Luis Emilio Rondon said signatures from the petition to recall Maduro would be validated from June 20 to 24 -- the next step in the lengthy process.

Full details would be announced Friday, he said.

Led by a group of opposition lawmakers, the protesters earlier Thursday defied a cordon of police and soldiers.

They tried to enter the CNE's headquarters, unleashing a heated shoving match with police.

A brawl broke out and punches flew when the protesters faced pro-government sympathizers.

Julio Borges, the congressional majority leader, was attacked with clubs, punches and kicks. Despite wearing a protective helmet, he was forced to flee to a nearby office.

He later spoke to reporters with blood running down his nose.

"We were going peacefully to ask to be heard, like any other Venezuelan," but the board members "refused to see us," he said.

"They believe that they're above the constitution, above the people."

Prosecutors said late Thursday they were launching a formal investigation into the assault.

Maduro blamed the violence on his political enemies and vowed to throw the "provocateurs" into prison.

"I condemn today's violence in downtown Caracas which was instigated by the right," he told a crowd that had gathered for a march to the presidential palace to show support for government social programs.

Maduro faces mounting protests over shortages of food, medicine, electricity and water.

Increasingly, they are coming not only from what he calls the "fascist Venezuelan right," but from poor and working-class neighborhoods once considered bastions for him and his late predecessor, leftist firebrand Hugo Chavez.

But Maduro can still rally large crowds of his own. As tension mounts, there are fears of a return to the violence that killed 43 people during rival pro- and anti-government demonstrations in 2014.

Opposition protesters Thursday chanted "Recall now!" and "We're hungry!" as the pro-Maduro crowd tried to drown them out with their own chants.

Police hurled tear gas canisters to break up the crowds.

Lawmaker Jose Guerra, one of the protest leaders, said some of the pro-Maduro protesters had guns.

Elsewhere in Caracas, in the Plaza Venezuela, students who gathered to march to the Electoral Board office were surrounded by security forces as they chanted "This government will fall!"

The speaker of the opposition-majority congress, Henry Ramos Allup, condemned the military's recent role in containing anti-government protests.

"The armed forces have become disgusting. They don't defend the people, they defend a corrupt government," he said.

- Surge of looting, lynching -

After weeks of pressuring the CNE to allow the referendum process to go ahead, the opposition said Tuesday that the board had accepted as valid 1.3 million signatures on a petition for a recall vote.

Now, at least 200,000 signatories must confirm their identity with fingerprint scans.

Under the constitution, the opposition would then have to gather four million more signatures -- 20 percent of the electorate -- to trigger a recall vote.

Maduro's opponents are racing to call a referendum before January 10, when a successful recall vote would trigger new elections rather than transfer power to the vice president.

Home to the world's largest oil reserves, Venezuela has been left reeling by the plunge in global crude prices.

Many Venezuelans spend much of the day waiting in snaking lines at supermarkets and pharmacies, desperately looking for food and medicine.

The scarcity has sent prices soaring.

Inflation came in at 180.9 percent last year, the highest rate in the world. The International Monetary Fund forecasts it will hit 700 percent this year.

Facing economic chaos, daily power cuts, and government offices that only open twice a week to save electricity, seven in 10 Venezuelans say they want Maduro to go.

The security forces have largely managed to contain the protests so far, and the fractious opposition has struggled to rally mass demos.

But protests, looting, violent crime and vigilante justice are all on the rise.

The Supreme Court on Monday banned the media from publishing videos of mob lynchings, which have surged as people take justice into their own hands.

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