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article imageSpiraling violence a double-edged sword in Venezuela

By Alex VASQUEZ (AFP)     May 25, 2017 in World

A young man set ablaze by protesters in Caracas. Looting, destruction and 57 people dead.

Both the Venezuelan government and the opposition admit that violent protests that have gripped the country for nearly two months are out of control -- and analysts warn they could be a double-edged sword that might trigger even more unrest.

"We condemn violence wherever it comes from," Attorney General Luisa Ortega said on Wednesday. Nominally an ally of socialist President Nicolas Maduro, Ortega is now the highest-profile public official to criticize the authorities during the protests against him.

The government blames its opponents -- some armed with stones and Molotov cocktails -- for the clashes. But opposition protesters say they must defend themselves from tear gas and even bullets.

"If they let us march, we wouldn't do anything," said 19 year-old Alejandro, who belongs to a group of hooded youths opposed to Maduro.

"But they attack first so we throw rocks and bottles," he told AFP.

- Nightmare scenes -

Maduro says that his moves to draft a new constitution will bring "peace."

Riot police clash with opposition demonstrators during a protest in Caracas  on May 24  2017
Riot police clash with opposition demonstrators during a protest in Caracas, on May 24, 2017

He called on the opposition again on Thursday to sit down with the government within the framework of a "constituent assembly" to be elected in July and tasked with drafting a new constitution.

His critics reject the plan, calling it a power grab in the face of deadly unrest.

The burning of 21-year-old Orlando Figuera -- beaten, doused in fuel and set alight in a recent Caracas protest -- highlights the country's descent into chaos.

The prosecutor investigating the incident dubbed it "nightmarish," blasting videos that appear to have been "manipulated to favor one of the sides in the dispute" as "vulgar."

The government says Figuera was attacked for being a Maduro supporter. The opposition, which has also condemned the incident, says members of the crowd had accused him of "stealing."

- March on military -

The public prosecution service said in a new report Thursday that the death toll stands at 57 after some eight weeks of demonstrations demanding general elections to remove Maduro.

Senior opposition lawmaker Freddy Guevara said his side plans to march in protest to a military complex in Caracas on Friday to demand the armed forces drop their support for Maduro.

Volunteer medics carry away a protester incapacitated by tear gas in Caracas  battered by weeks of d...
Volunteer medics carry away a protester incapacitated by tear gas in Caracas, battered by weeks of deadly unrest

Ortega has blamed the military police for hundreds of injuries in the unrest.

Protesters brand the socialist president a dictator, accusing him of causing economic turmoil and food shortages. Maduro has resisted those calls, insisting the opposition and the United States are plotting a coup against him.

- Hooded warriors -

Analysts warn the violence benefits neither the government, which faces mounting international pressure, nor the opposition, which could lose sight of its aims.

If the opposition becomes "radical and violent," said analyst Luis Vicente Leon, it risks "scaring people away."

Nicmer Evans, a political scientist ideologically loyal to the socialist leadership but critical of Maduro, says people in both the government and the opposition are driving the violence -- but that it has especially "discredited" the opposition.

"We see hooded warriors, with Molotov bombs, in a stupid confrontation of David versus Goliath that spawns rejection and distracts from goals," he said.

But Roberto Briceno Leon, head of Venezuelan Violence Watch, says the government is promoting confrontation "because it no longer has popular support."

- Fears of war -

Venezuelans are struggling with shortages of food and medicine, soaring inflation -- prices could rise by 720 percent this year, the International Monetary Fund estimates -- and one of the world's highest violent crime rates.

Opposition protesters kick a riot policeman during clashes in Caracas
Opposition protesters kick a riot policeman during clashes in Caracas

If the violence continues, analysts say it could come close to "civil war," as sociologist Francisco Coello puts it.

"A problem of this type," Briceno said, "cannot be resolved... without political negotiation."

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