Caracas clashes flare after student camp raid
243 arrested, one policeman dead in clampdown, as opposition leader’s hearing suspended
CARACAS — Hundreds of Venezuelan police and troops broke up four makeshift camps maintained by student protesters, arresting 243 people yesterday in pre-dawn raids.
One policeman died of bullet wounds, among five people injured, authorities said.
The tent cities were installed more than a month ago in front of the offices of the United Nations and in better-off neighbourhoods in the capital to protest against President Nicolás Maduro’s socialist government.
Witnesses near the UN office said around 900 National Guardsmen and police officers began arriving after 3am and were greeted angrily by neighbours who launched objects and insults from nearby balconies.
Francia Cacique, 24, a leader of one of the camps, called the raid illegal and denied the students had been plotting subversive activities. “They’ve come up with the excuse of drugs and weapons, which is totally false,” Cacique told reporters, saying the detained protesters were being held at a Caracas military base. She was not arrested. ”I call on the world to help us and to realize that this is a dictatorship!”
“These arrests are irresponsible because this is a peaceful protest and we are not trying to topple the government,” said José Manuel Pérez, 22, a student leader. “Mr. President, think about what you’re doing. We demand respect for the students.”
Troops yesterday morning picked up the remnants of the camps, where students from all over the country had lived in tents, chatting and strumming guitars beneath banners with anti-government slogans, such as “Maduro, assassin.”
Police fired tear gas on protesters near the upscale Plaza Altamira who had set up barricades along a main avenue in eastern Caracas to demand the students be freed.
Meanwhile, Interior Minister Miguel Rodríguez Torres said soldiers arrested 243 people, accusing the students of using the camps as a base of operations to stage violent protests.
He presented homemade mortars, guns and Molotov cocktails that he said were seized at the camps and used to carry out “terrorist” acts against security forces.
“This shows there was an entire logistical apparatus in place,” Rodríguez Torres said, seeking to counter claims that the anti-government movement has been peaceful and spontaneous.
Speaking at a news conference outside the detention centre where the protesters were being held, he said an “impressive” amount of drugs were also found. He performed a test in front of journalists to determine the purity of cocaine that he said was confiscated.
He said the detainees would be charged, but it wasn’t clear when that would happen. Under Venezuelan law, prosecutors have 48 hours to bring detainees before a judge and charge them, but in recent months officials have often ignored the rules and held protesters incommunicado for longer periods before letting them go.
Hours after the raids, a scattered detritus of shoes, clothes and destroyed banners littered the streets where the makeshift campground once stood. A few dozen neighbours built barricades to block traffic, demanding the release of the students.
“How can this be allowed when the Constitution guarantees the right to peaceful protest,” said Anais Serrano, a real estate agent. “These kids weren’t anything bad.”
López hearing suspended
The dismantling of the camps was announced just hours before a top opposition leader, Leopoldo López, was scheduled to appear in court after being in custody since February.
The hearing on whether he should begin trial on charges of inciting violence at anti-government protests was suspended and he was taken back to a military prison almost as soon as he arrived at the courthouse downtown.
Court sources informed that the hearing was suspended because there is “no office at the Court” to carry out such audience, according to local newspaper El Universal. They also said that no new date has been set yet.
Herald with AP, Reuters, online media