Police in Venezuela have arrested 243 people in a crackdown on camps set up to protest against the government of President Nicolas Maduro, officials say.
Just before dawn on Thursday, troops broke up four tent camps decorated with Venezuelan flags and signs bearing protest slogans, one of which had been blocking traffic along a main street in the capital, Caracas, for weeks.
I call on the world to help us and to realise that this is a dictatorship.
Members of the National Guard “impounded drugs, weapons, explosives…all of the things that they were using every day to violently confront security forces“, Miguel Rodriguez Torres, Venezuela’s interior minister, said on state television, adding that 243 people were arrested and would appear in court in the coming hours.
Francia Cacique, the leader of the one of the camps, called the raid illegal and denied accusations that students were plotting subversive activities.
“They’ve come up with the excuse of drugs and weapons, which is totally false,” Cacique told Reuters news agency over instant messaging, adding that the detained protesters were being held at a Caracas military base.
“I call on the world to help us and to realise that this is a dictatorship,” Cacique said.
The South American country has experienced waves of demonstrations that have killed 41 people on all sides, and injured 785 others, since February.
Opposition activists launched the protests due to frustrations over soaring prices, chronic product shortages and abuse by security forces.
At least 2,200 people have been arrested in connection with the demonstrations over the last few months.
Maduro’s administration has grown increasingly fed up with the ongoing protests and last week announced that it had arrested 58 foreigners, including an American, on suspicion of inciting violent demonstrations against the government.
Both Maduro and Rodriguez Torres have said the protests are a plot to promote unrest and overthrow the current administration.
The raid on protest camps came on the same day that US State Department officials briefed a Senate committee on the ongoing unrest in Venezuela and one day before a house panel is set to finalise a sanctions bill.
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The legislation concerns $15m in new funds to promote democracy and rule of law in Venezuela. It also bans visas for officials who crushed anti-government protests by students, opposition leaders and others and freezes their assets.
Marco Rubio, a Republican senator and sponsor of the Senate legislation, said penalties would send an important message at a time when human rights groups have accused Venezuelan security officials of arresting, torturing and killing unarmed demonstrators.
Action now would show that the US was “firmly on the side of the democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people,” Rubio told the AP news agency in a telephone interview.