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Venezuela cracks down on protest camps

By Rafael Romo, Senior Latin American Affairs Editor
May 12, 2014 -- Updated 1306 GMT (2106 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Venezuelan authorities detain 243 protesters
  • They raid the campsites the protesters were staying in
  • The protesters complain about the operation

(CNN) -- The Venezuelan government detained 243 protesters in a swift, predawn operation targeting four campsites set up at public squares around Caracas, the capital.

Officials say the Thursday operation involved more than 900 members of the Venezuelan National Guard and police.

But anti-government demonstrators who witnessed the operation complained about the way it was carried out.

A member of the Bolivarian National Police clashes with protestors during a demonstration against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on Saturday, May 10. Clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces have left more than 40 people dead and about 800 injured since February, according to officials. A member of the Bolivarian National Police clashes with protestors during a demonstration against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on Saturday, May 10. Clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces have left more than 40 people dead and about 800 injured since February, according to officials.
Protests in Venezuela
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Photos: Protests in Venezuela Photos: Protests in Venezuela

Pedro Gómez, one of those staying at a campsite, told CNN en Español that "the National Guard showed up and destroyed the campsite. They came against us in a totally violent way."

Venezuelan Peace and Justice Minister Miguel Rodriguez said he had no option but to deploy security forces to ensure public safety.

"Beyond the protest movement they intended to maintain at the campsites, they had become generators of violence in those sectors of the city; they had committed acts of terrorism," Rodriguez said.

In a televised conference, the minister also said security forces found illegal drugs, explosives, tear gas and weapons at the campsites belonging to many of the detained demonstrators.

Clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces have left more than 40 people dead and around 800 injured since February, according to officials. Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz said Thursday that 32 of the dead are civilians and the rest members of the National Guard and police.

The crisis is cause for concern beyond Venezuela. The United Nations human rights office is voicing concern about the way security forces cleared the protesters' campsites at the four public squares.

Rupert Colville, spokesman for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, called on the Venezuelan government to ensure the right of freedom of expression.

"We unequivocally condemn all violence by all sides in Venezuela. We are particularly concerned at the reported excessive use of force by the authorities in response to protests," said Colville.

In Washington, senators introduced a bill to impose sanctions on Venezuelan government officials who, they claim, are guilty of human rights violations.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio was one of those leading the charge, making serious accusations against top Venezuelan government officials.

"There was a young man sodomized in Venezuela by government forces. There have been women that have been threatened," Rubio said.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro called the bill an act of aggression against Venezuela and promised a bold response, including shutting down Venezuelan consulates around the United States.

"If we have to close down consulates, if we have to close down the embassy in order to defend Venezuela, who is going to be affected? Huh? Those [Venezuelans] who live in the United States," Maduro said at a public event broadcast live on national TV.

Venezuelan immigrants in Florida were not intimidated.

Natalia Tovar, a Venezuelan-born Miami resident, was getting ready to travel to Washington. She told CNN affiliate WSVN she was making the journey in support of the bill, which includes economic sanctions against specific Venezuelan officials.

"Some of the other sanctions recognize Venezuela as a dictatorship, which it is, because right now we have high levels of censorship, we have scarcity, there's a medical crisis," Tovar said.

Maduro says protesters are "fascists and extreme right thugs" who are trying to destabilize the government to promote a coup. Protesters call Maduro a dictator who has ruined the Venezuelan economy with failed socialist policies.

The attempted rape of a young student on a university campus in the southwestern city of San Cristobal galvanized students, who took to the streets to speak against crime, shortages, blackouts and a dire economic situation.

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