Top Venezuela opposition MP blocked by troops

Clashes break out as anti-government activist Maria Corina Machado is barred from entering parliament.

    Venezuelan troops have dispersed opposition demonstrators with tear gas and blocked anti-government activist Maria Corina Machado, recently stripped of her seat in the National Assembly, from reaching the legislature.

    National Guard soldiers surrounded a rally of opposition sympathisers who had planned to march into downtown Caracas on Wednesday to protest at Machado's expulsion from Congress, preventing them from leaving and clearing the square with tear gas, Reuters news agency reported.

    Parliament stripped Machado of her post last week on charges she violated the constitution by accepting an invitation from Panama to speak against the government of President Nicolas Maduro at a meeting of the Organization of American States.

    The opposition leader dismissed that process as an illegal maneuver by a dictatorial government and vowed to attend a session of the legislature on Tuesday. She was stopped from doing so by a line of troops several blocks from the parliament.

    "I want to thank every citizen for their support and strength!" she said on Twitter as her supporters gathered.

    "Today I am more a deputy than ever, and I will continue to be one until the people decide otherwise."

    Weeks of protests

    The wealthy, well-traveled conservative has been a key figure leading the anti-government protests that have rocked Venezuela for seven weeks, according to the Associated Press news agency.

    The other high-profile opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, has been imprisoned since February 18. A sea of protesters accompanied him when he turned himself in on charges of provoking the unrest.

    Anti-government protests began in the South American OPEC nation of 29 million in mid-February over shortages of basic items and high crime levels. The protests have decreased in intensity in the last few weeks as opposition demonstrators grow weary.

    The director of local pollster Datanalisis said this month that Maduro's approval rating dropped to 41.5 percent in March from around 47 percent in February, according to local media.

    That decline may be less the result of the protests, however, and more a reflection of economic problems including inflation of 57 percent and shortages of staples ranging from flour to toilet paper.


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