By FABIOLA SANCHEZ and ANDREA RODRIGUEZ
2014-03-23 03:22 AM
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Two more people were reported dead in Venezuela as a result of anti-government protests even as supporters and opponents of President Nicolas Maduro took to the streets on Saturday in new shows of force.
Argenis Hernandez was shot in the stomach by an angered motorist while he and a group of student protesters were manning a barricade Friday on a highway outside Valencia, Venezuela's third-largest city and major focal point of recent unrest. He was rushed to a nearby hospital and died Saturday before dawn, local officials told The Associated Press.
Meanwhile in San Cristobal, the city that spawned the wave of unrest, 31-year-old bus driver Wilfredo Rey was shot Friday night after a group of Maduro supporters entered an anti-government neighborhood on motorcycles and began firing indiscriminately, according to Sergio Vergara, who has been running San Cristobal's government since Mayor Daniel Ceballos, an outspoken critic of Maduro, was arrested last week on charges of fomenting violence.
With the two deaths, at least 30 people have been killed during five weeks of clashes between protesters and security forces who are sometimes joined by motorcycle-riding civilians loyal to Maduro's socialist government. Hundreds more have been wounded and arrested.
The threat of violence didn't deter thousands of Venezuelans from congregating peacefully in the capital Caracas and other cities on Saturday to demand an end to the use of force against dissents by what opponents have taken to calling Maduro's "dictatorship". The demonstrations come a little more than a month after the arrest of Leopoldo Lopez, a leading voice of the opposition who had been urging Maduro to step down. He is charged with conspiracy and arson tied to the first wave of deadly protests.
Maduro has denounced the protests as part of a US-backed, "fascist" conspiracy to stir violence and oust him from power just a few months after his party prevailed in nationwide municipal elections. The hand-picked successor of the late President Hugo Chavez, he was expected to address another rally called Saturday in Caracas by loyalist students denouncing arson attacks that have kept several universities shut for weeks.
"This Venezuelan right-wing is especially conspiratorial and is trying to drive a hole through our democracy," Maduro said in televised remarks Saturday.
While both sides are digging in for a prolonged battle, Venezuela's economy continues to wobble, with many analysts now forecasting a recession this year and no end in sight for widespread shortages and galloping inflation that hit 57 percent in February.
Maduro on Friday estimated damage caused by the protests at $10 billion.