Supporters of Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro march in Caracas show their support for the socialist regime
Caracas (AFP) - Venezuelan security forces fired tear gas Saturday to disperse demonstrators in Caracas outraged by massive power outages that have kept much of the country in darkness since early March.
AFP journalists on the scene said the security forces blocked opposition protesters from concentrating at certain points in the western side of the capital city.
The latest power outage hit just after 7 pm (2310 GMT) Friday, affecting Caracas and at least 20 of the oil producing country's 23 states.
The blackouts have hit Venezuela hard -- worsening the already-dire economic and living conditions in a country that is witnessing a political showdown between the head of the country's leftist government, Nicolas Maduro, and opposition leader Juan Guaido.
The United States and more than 50 other countries recognize Guaido as interim president. Russia, along with China, back Maduro.
The blackouts that began on March 7 have affected the water service, transportation, and telephone and internet services across the country. The most recent blackout halted activities between Monday and Thursday.
"Our lights go out at every moment, we don't have internet service ... the water service has been terrible for more than a year, and with these blackouts things have gotten a lot worse," said a protester at a Caracas demo who did not want to give her name. She was in a crowd with her neighbors protesting by banging pots.
"I refuse to leave Venezuela, because I am certain that there is so much here to fight for," said another marcher who identified herself only as Andrea. "We are going to stay in the street fighting."
She said that while Caracas outages were bad, in many states they are much worse, making it impossible for millions to use refrigerators.
Maduro has blamed the previous outages on sabotage, but experts have said infrastructure crumbling from years of neglect is a likelier culprit than outside interference.
Malnutrition and disease are on the rise as living conditions plummet in the oil-producing Latin American nation, which is spiraling ever deeper into economic chaos during the protracted political crisis.
- More demos planned-
Guaido moved to keep the pressure on the Maduro government by calling for a new mass protest.
"We are organizing Operation Freedom. And we want everyone in the streets around Venezuela on April 6," Guaido said at a rally in Los Teques, not far from Caracas.
In response, Maduro also called another new mass counter-demonstration "to say no to US terrorist imperialism."
He also called on the "colectivos" - pro-government enforcers that the opposition describe as armed paramilitary thugs - to have "zero tolerance" for violence at the protests.
"They are inciting people with hatred. We are calling for love. We are calling for peace," said Maduro's social movements chief Jesus Camargo.
- Get Out, Trump says -
Separately in Moscow, Russia warned US officials to stop interfering in the standoff between Maduro and Guaido.
"We recommend that the United States stop threatening Venezuela, smothering its economy and pushing it towards civil war in open violation of international law," foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a statement Saturday.
Two Russian military planes landed a week ago at the main airport outside Caracas and offloaded equipment and troops, ratcheting up international tensions.
Moscow said the personnel were part of a long-standing agreement on military and technical cooperation. Venezuela is Russia's largest military client in Latin America.
In the Saturday statement Zakharova said Russia had made it clear it was not sending a military contingent to Venezuela.
The military specialists are apparently helping to fix a malfunctioning Russian S-300 ground-to-air missile system, US envoy Elliott Abrams said Friday.
US President Donald Trump earlier called on Russia to "get out" of Venezuela.
- Humanitarian aid -
Amid the political crisis, the Red Cross announced that in 15 days it would start distributing humanitarian aid in Venezuela. Aid has been at the center of the power struggle between Maduro and Guaido.
Maduro's decision to accept international aid is a major policy shift, because until now he had claimed Venezuela's problems were caused by the United States and others while denying any crisis existed.
According to the United Nations, a quarter of Venezuela's 30 million people have urgent humanitarian aid needs.
On February 23 shipments of food and medicine sent by the United States, Colombia and Brasil in support of Guaido were blocked from entering Venezuela at the border by the Maduro government. Seven people were killed and scores wounded in the following violence.
Maduro at the time claimed that the aid was a preamble to a militar intervention to oust him from power.