Thousands protest ahead of Chavez anniversary

CARACAS, Venezuela - Thousands of flag-waving protesters flooded the streets of Venezuela's capital Tuesday, seeking to keep pressure on the government on the eve of commemorations marking the anniversary of Hugo Chavez's death.

Led by students, marchers dressed in white streamed peacefully through middle-class neighborhoods of Caracas toward Petare, a sprawling slum on the city's eastern edge.

But as night fell, around 300 radical protesters threw rocks and firebombs at national guard troops who responded with tear gas and water cannon in an affluent area that has become the scene of near daily clashes.

Three people were detained and a photographer was beaten by protesters.

At least 18 people have died and more than 260 were injured since the protests erupted February 4 in the western border city of San Cristobal, igniting the biggest challenge yet to the nearly year-old government of Chavez's handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro.

In Washington, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning the "inexcusable violence perpetrated against opposition leaders and protesters."

Back at the peaceful march in Caracas, protesters chanted "We love you Venezuela" and "Freedom!" as they waved flags in the red, yellow and blue national colors and stopped at the entrance of Petare.

The demonstrators said they wanted to show that protesters are not just from the middle-class and that the capital's poorer places are not all strongholds of the elected socialist government.

"It's a lie that Petare is 100 per cent Chavista," said Morela Perez, a 39-year-old unemployed resident of the barrio, which is known to include a mix of government backers and supporters of opposition leader Henrique Capriles.

Holding a sign that read "Petare you are not Chavista," she said protests have not happened there because people are afraid of pro-Chavez activists.

The demonstrators hoisted banners accusing the government of censorship and repression. "There is enough tear gas to make Venezuela cry," read one.

The opposition has been intent on keeping up the momentum of the protests against the Maduro government, which is trying just as hard to defuse them.

The government has encouraged Venezuelans to take full advantage of the annual Carnival holidays, which ended Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Maduro is leading a military and civilian parade to mark one year since the charismatic Chavez died of cancer aged 58, after 14 years in office.

Students and the opposition planned to mark the anniversary with demonstrations of their own, including in San Cristobal.

Analysts say the protests centred on the middle-class have yet to pose a threat to the Maduro government, which relies on a well of support among its poor base.

Maduro insists the protests are a US-backed plot by "fascist" elements intent on ousting him.

Rampant crime, soaring inflation, shortages and worsening living conditions have fueled anger with the government, particularly among the hard-hit middle class.

Mariana Fonseca, a 39-year-old graphic designer in a baseball cap the colors of the Venezuelan flag, said demonstrators were marching toward Petare because the poor also are affected by street crime.

"The people in the barrios are also with the cause," she said.

"I am protesting for many reasons. One is the violence in the streets, the robberies and the kidnappings. But also because of the shortages of the things like flour, oil and toilet paper," she said.

Maria Eugenia Molina, a 70-year-old who carried a sign with a peace dove and an image of the Virgin Mary, described herself as a "prisoner of the government."

"I am a prisoner of violent crime," she said. "I have to stand in long lines to get food. My pension is not enough to make ends meet."