The international community on Friday condemned the violent protest by the pro-government militias and demanded that President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela call on those responsible for violence to stand down.
Luis Almagro, Secretary-General of the Organisation of American States (OAS) said democracy in Venezuela had been “fatally wounded”.
Photos being circulated online showed militia members on motorbikes shooting at protesters and police beating others who in turn responded with violence.
“We condemn above all that the regime has armed the Colectivos so that they can exercise repression without restraint,” Almagro said, using the local name for the armed groups supporting Maduro’s Socialist government.
Anti-government protesters clashed with police on Thursday for a second straight day, as marchers demanding political change were met with tear gas and riot squads, in further scenes of violence that have left nine people dead in the last two weeks.
Thousands of demonstrators turned out in Caracas and other cities against Maduro’s leftist government.
Police in Caracas fired tear gas grenades to try to keep the crowd from assembling for an attempted march on the city centre, according to an opposition parliamentarian at the scene.
“When more people got here, they attacked us by throwing more bombs at the corps of protesters,” Progressive Movement of Venezuela (MPV) deputy Simon Calzadilla said.
“It can not be that this is their response to a peaceful demonstration.”
Since protests began in earnest April 4, Maduro has mobilised military and police for a vigorous crackdown on protesters, whom he accuses of attempting a coup d’etat under the direction of Western powers, including the U.S.
The incident comes against the backdrop of a deepening political and economic crisis in Venezuela, with deadly street protests against Maduro’s government sparking violent clashes between police, demonstrators and armed gangs allegedly loyal to Maduro.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Thursday urged both sides to engage in dialogue about the balance of power, the electoral calendar, human rights, truth and justice and the socio-economic situation.
“We are concerned about the latest developments in Venezuela and urge that all efforts be made to lower tensions and prevent further clashes,” Guterres’ spokesman said in a statement.
The anti-government protests were set off by a failed power grab by the loyalist Supreme Court, which in a March 30 ruling attempted to strip the opposition-controlled National Assembly of its powers.
The rulings were a breaking point for many Venezuelans, amid a long-simmering political and economic crisis that has caused widespread shortages of food and medicines and triple-digit inflation.
Maduro has responded to the crises with increasing authoritarianism, blocking opposition moves for a referendum to recall him, while at the same time instituting dubious reforms rooted in his predecessor Hugo Chavez’s “21st century socialism” in an effort to salvage the economy.