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Venezuela issues arrest warrant for opposition leader after clashes

From Phil Gunson, For CNN
February 13, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Members of the Venezuelan National Guard take their positions during an opposition demo.
Members of the Venezuelan National Guard take their positions during an opposition demo.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • An arrest warrant is issued for an opposition leader
  • At least three people are killed in political violence in Venezuela
  • Dozens more are injured, and about 30 are arrested
  • President Nicolas Maduro describes protests as a coup against his government

Caracas, Venezuela (CNN) -- A day after political violence in Venezuela left three dead on the streets of Caracas, authorities issued an arrest warrant for an opposition leader on charges including conspiracy and murder in connection with the clashes, an official with Venezuela's justice ministry said Thursday.

Before his government issued an arrest warrant for opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, President Nicolas Maduro had already threatened him with a permanent ban on holding public office.

Lopez's party, Popular Will (known as VP after its initials in Spanish), has accused the government of responsibility for violence during anti-government protests Wednesday.

The violence, which left three dead in Caracas and dozens more injured or detained across the country, has exacerbated an already tense situation.

Maduro insists he is facing a slow-motion coup.

"I want to alert the world. We are facing a developing coup plan against the democracy and the government that I preside over, orchestrated by a small group of irresponsible leaders, violent, full of hatred and personal ambitions," he said Wednesday.

Opposition leaders say they will not be intimidated and will continue to protest in the streets.

Students have protested for days nationwide to demand a better way of life, greater security on campus and the release of classmates arrested during marches.

Maduro was elected last April following President Hugo Chavez's death from cancer. He has presided over a sharp decline in living standards and has failed to stem rising violent crime.

Inflation, at 56.2%, is the highest in the world and many basic goods are missing from the shelves. Amid stringent price and exchange controls, Venezuela is running out of hard currency to pay foreign suppliers of goods and services.

One wing of the opposition Democratic Unity alliance is demanding a change of government. Moderates, led by former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, believe street demonstrations merely play into the government's hands.

On Wednesday, however, Capriles joined a protest march on the downtown offices of the public prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Diaz. Among other things, demonstrators were demanding the release of student leaders jailed after earlier protests in the southwestern state of Tachira.

Ortega refused to receive them. The two main opposition leaders behind the demonstration -- Lopez and congresswoman Maria Corina Machado -- eventually told protesters to disperse.

However, a group that remained behind was soon involved in skirmishes with armed government supporters.

Both sides blame the other for the violence, which in addition to the deaths and injuries left five police patrol cars ablaze and the building housing the prosecutor's office badly damaged.

The interior minister said about 30 people were arrested for suspected vandalism. They had hoods, radios, loaded petrol bombs and stones to attack the police, Miguel Rodriguez Torres told state-run VTV.

Another casualty has been the media.

The government has warned independent broadcasters of reprisals if they carry live coverage of demonstrations. Most have chosen to toe the line. The international, Spanish-language news channel NTN24 was removed from cable and satellite services for declining to do so. Some press photographers covering the demonstration had their material snatched by security forces or government supporters.

The head of the government's media watchdog Conatel, William Castillo, accused foreign media of a deliberate campaign to stoke the violence and undermine the government.

Capriles, for his part, made a plea for moderation. He urged opposition supporters not to "help a weak government like this to strengthen its grip."

With rival opposition leaders taking a radically different line, the split in their ranks seems set to widen. And on the streets, clashes seem likely to continue.

On Thursday, the national guard deployed troops and armored vehicles in many cities as students continued to protest, albeit in smaller numbers.

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Journalist Osmary Hernandez and CNN's Marilia Brocchetto, Faith Karimi and Alba Prifti contributed to this report.

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