Riots, looting in Venezuela; opposition leaders arrested

Javier TOVAR
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The Venezuelan National Guard stands guard as they clash with opposition activists clash in Caracas on April 13, 2017

The Venezuelan National Guard stands guard as they clash with opposition activists clash in Caracas on April 13, 2017 (AFP Photo/JUAN BARRETO)

Caracas (AFP) - Venezuelan authorities said Friday they had arrested two opposition youth leaders, the latest move in a crackdown against ongoing anti-government protests that have left five people dead.

Thursday night saw the latest eruption of riots in a country hit by food shortages, as protesters in a town near the capital threw Molotov cocktails and police fired tear gas.

Jose Sanchez and Alejandro Sanchez were arrested "for organizing terrorist acts and assaults against the peace of the country," Interior Minister Nestor Reverol wrote on Twitter.

The two are youth leaders of the Justice First party, one of the main groups in the center-right coalition pushing for Socialist President Nicolas Maduro to be removed from office.

Venezuelan authorities drew international criticism last week for banning the party's most prominent figure, Henrique Capriles, from public office for 15 years.

Reverol said the two detainees "confessed to taking part in this week's violence."

The latest in more than a week of violent clashes erupted overnight Thursday to Friday in the town of Los Teques near the capital.

Protesters mounted barricades and hurled Molotov cocktails, and police fired tear gas, photographs on social media showed.

Capriles, governor of the surrounding Miranda state, said 15 shops were looted, including several bakeries.

Speaking at a news conference, he alleged that "all the acts of vandalism" were ordered by the government.

The pro-government mayor of Los Teques, Francisco Garces, on Twitter blamed the looting on "violent opposition factions."

- More protests vowed -

Five people, including a 13-year-old boy, have been killed since April 6 in clashes with riot police during a wave of protests against Maduro.

Justice First rejected Reverol's allegations. It wrote on its Twitter account that the two youth leaders were "abducted" by military intelligence forces.

"Nestor Reverol, the real terrorism is the one you are leading by repressing the people," it wrote.

Maduro is fighting off efforts to oust him as Venezuela struggles with shortages of food and medicine.

The country has the world's biggest oil reserves but has suffered from a fall in the price of crude over recent years.

The next major organized rallies called by opposition leaders are set for Wednesday next week.

They are expected to be the next big showdown in an increasingly fraught crisis that has raised international concerns about Venezuela's stability.

The opposition is demanding the authorities set a date for postponed regional elections.

It is also furious over moves to limit the powers of the legislature and ban Capriles from politics.

Those moves have raised international condemnation including from the United States and the European Union.

Maduro has resisted opposition efforts to hold a vote on removing him, vowing to continue the "socialist revolution" launched by his late predecessor Hugo Chavez.

Maduro says the economic crisis is the result of what he calls a US-backed capitalist conspiracy.