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Venezuela protesters urge activists' release

Demonstrators in Caracas call for release of dozens of activists arrested during three weeks of violent protests.

Last updated: 02 Mar 2014 00:33
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Anti-government protesters, dressed as Carnival revellers, stage a demonstration in Caracas [Reuters]

Anti-government protesters have taken to the streets of Venezuela's capital, calling for the release of dozens of activists who have been arrested during three weeks of violent demonstrations.

Protesters from a radical opposition group formed a convoy of cars and bikes in eastern Caracas after fresh violence on Friday saw pitched battles between security forces and demonstrators.

A total of 18 people have died in the demonstrations against President Nicolas Maduro's government, according to official figures.

Protesters on Saturday vowed to boycott Venezuela's annual carnival celebrations as a mark of respect to the dead.

"We honour the dead. No carnival, there is nothing to celebrate," engineering student Argenis Arteaga told the AFP news agency at the protest.

Foreigners arrested

Saturday's demonstration came after at least 41 people, including several foreign journalists, were arrested during Friday's clashes.

National Guard security forces used water cannons and tear gas to break up student-led demonstrations in the city's wealthy Chacao district.

Hooded protesters set up barricades and responded with a steady barrage of Molotov cocktails.

Maduro has labeled the protests that began on February 4 as a Washington-backed attempted "coup."

He says that radical opposition leaders have joined students angered by high inflation and goods shortage in plotting to topple his nearly year-old government, AFP reports.

Friday's arrests included eight foreigners who were being "held for international terrorism," state VTV television said in a brief statement.

Venezuela's journalist association SNTP said one of the foreigners was US freelance reporter Andrew Rosati, who writes for the Miami Herald.

Rosati was detained for half an hour and released after being "struck in the face and his abdomen" by security forces, the SNTP said on Twitter.

Also detained and released was a team of journalists from the AP news agency, it said.

The SNTP also said Italian photographer Francesca Commissari, who works for the local daily El Nacional, was being held.

Protest organizer Alfredo Romero said on Saturday that he had been in contact with Commissari.

"I spoke personally with Francesca Commissari. She's okay," Romero, president of the Venezuelan Penal Forum, wrote on Twitter.

Government officials released no details on the arrest of foreigners.

'Civil war'

Friday's clashes added fuel to protests that had begun to flag after the government decreed several days of holidays to mark the start of carnival season.

In a separate incident, Maduro said National Guard members were "ambushed" and shot at while removing debris from the streets of Valencia, Venezuela's economic hub.

One died from a shot in the eye and another was shot twice in the leg.

"All these things are aimed at triggering a backlash from security forces," Maduro said.

"Justice must prevail against implacable murderers and those preparing paramilitary groups ... to hide behind alleged protests and seek civil war."

Torture claims

The Venezuelan Penal Forum, meanwhile, said 33 cases of "cruel and inhuman treatment or torture" have been reported to the public ombudsman.

The Venezuelan government said it was investigating 27 cases of human rights abuses, though it provided no details of possible wrongdoing.

"My son was raped [with a pistol] after he was detained by security forces following a demonstration," Rebecca González de Carrasco told Al Jazeera during an interview in her Valencia apartment.

The family has filed a formal complaint.
 
Her son is banned from speaking to the press, as his case is under investigation by authorities.

"I don’t believe in the justice system here, it isn't independent," Carrasco said.

Some of the deaths have been attributed to violent clashes with police, but other victims have been shot by unidentified gunmen, whom the protesters have accused of being government agents.

The government has denied all links to such killings.

The opposition is planning another day of protests on Sunday, as other Venezuelans are hoping to relax during the carnival holidays.

Al Jazeera's Chris Arsenault, reporting from Caracas, said: "Sunday's protests will be a crucial test for the opposition.

"President Maduro urged Venezuelans to go to the beach for the holiday. If the opposition can't bring major crowds onto the street it could signal the waning of the movement."

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