New Venezuela protests planned after rare calm

CARACAS - Venezuelan protesters were preparing for a fresh round of anti-government demonstrations on Sunday following a rare peaceful evening in Caracas.

At least 18 people have been killed and 250 injured since a wave of protests began on February 4 against the government of President Nicolas Maduro, many ending in violent street battles.

The student-led protesters are angry over the soaring crime rate, spiralling inflation, the lack of basic goods in stores, and limited democratic rights in the oil-rich nation.

Protest marches began in early February and spread to the capital, where they have centered on the opposition stronghold of Chacao, a wealthy Caracas neighborhood.

By late Saturday, however, there was no sign of tear gas on the streets of the capital.

"This is the first time that this has happened in the last 18 days," said Chacao mayor Ramon Muchacho.

Maduro says the protests are part of a Washington-backed coup plot supported by opposition figures aimed at toppling his nearly year-old government.

He called a six-day holiday to mark the beginning of Carnival, an annual holiday that normally sees many Venezuelans leave the cities and head to the beach.

Critics say the holiday was a blatant attempt to undermine the demonstrations.

But protesters have largely stayed put, and were busy gearing up for new demonstrations in Caracas on Sunday.

Juan Requesens, student leader at the Central University of Venezuela, said that students will depart from four points in the city and meet at the Plaza Brion to demand the release of detained activists.

On Saturday the demonstrators, joined by opposition lawmaker Maria Corina Machado, formed a convoy of some 500 cars and motorcycles and toured Caracas honking horns and waving flags as they protested government "torture and repression".

"We honor the dead. No Carnival, there is nothing to celebrate," engineering student Argenis Arteaga told AFP.

Clashes turned violent late Friday when security forces in riot gear used water cannons and tear gas to break up student-led demonstrations in Chacao.

Hooded protesters set up barricades and responded with a steady barrage of Molotov cocktails.

- Targeting the press -

At least 41 protesters were arrested in the late Friday rally, including eight foreigners held for "international terrorism", state VTV television said in a brief statement. An unspecified number were later released.

Maco Ruiz, head of Venezuela's journalist association SNTP, said the arrests were part of a deliberate government policy to intimidate the foreign press in the same way as they had already done with local media.

"The pattern of attacks that is repeating itself is now against international correspondents," Ruiz said Saturday.

Since February the SNTP says there have been 76 cases of attacks, arrests and harassment against Venezuelan media and foreign reporters, including theft of equipment.

The Ministry of Information released a documentary titled "Venezuela under attack by the media" that includes photos and articles the government says are "lies" linked to the coup plot.

Information Minister Delcy Rodriguez told Iranian HispaTV that Venezuela would sue the Spanish daily ABC for "manipulating the truth about Venezuela".

The SNTP said that one of the foreigners who was detained and released was US freelance reporter Andrew Rosati, who writes for the Miami Herald.

Also detained and released was a team of journalists from the Associated Press.

Italian photographer Francesca Commissari, who works for the local daily El Nacional, is still being held.