Venezuela police detain 243, dismantle protest camps

CARACAS - Venezuelan authorities demolished four protest camps and detained 243 people early Thursday, striking at the remaining bastions of a months-long and at times deadly anti-government movement.

But hours later, groups of youths were back out on the streets where they were met by tear gas and rubber bullets.

Riot police swept through the camps in surprise raids that began at 3:00 am (0730 GMT), Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres said, claiming the sites occupied by students were "being used by more violent groups to commit terrorist acts." He said 243 people were apprehended and would now be questioned to determine whether they should be prosecuted.

Lawyer and human rights activist Elenis Rodriguez said "very few young people were able to escape the onslaught." At least 41 people have died and more than 700 have been injured since students and other opponents of the government took to the country's streets in February to protest rampant crime, runaway inflation and shortages of basic goods.

Over the past month, the protest movement has largely been concentrated in Occupy-style encampments in Caracas, with the main one set up opposite the office of the United Nations Development Program in an upscale part of town.

That site - which consisted of hundreds of tents and blocked three of six lanes of a major thoroughfare - was left in shambles by the raid.

Rodriguez Torres said police seized drugs, weapons, explosives, mortars, grenades and gas canisters during their operation - "everything you would use to confront the security forces on a daily basis." But student leader Juan Requesens vowed the demonstrators would not be deterred.

"The students will pursue their fight for rights," he said.

Shortly before noon, youth groups protested in at least three locations in the east of Caracas, with authorities dispersing one such gathering with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Key hearing delayed

The police action came just hours before an announcement that a hearing for jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, set for Thursday, had been postponed.

Lopez "has again been transferred to the Ramo Verde military prison," added a statement from Lopez's Popular Will party.

The announcement did not specify a new court date.

"What are they afraid of? Of the truth? They know I should be freed," the party, via Twitter, quoted Lopez as saying.

The Harvard-educated economist has been in custody at a military jail since February 18 for allegedly inciting deadly violence during the protests. He was arrested in the midst of a massive opposition rally.

The arrests of Lopez and other opposition leaders have stoked the demonstrations, and their release was one of the conditions set by the opposition in talks aimed at ending the crisis.

In Washington, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson said Thursday's actions by Venezuela's government "do not support the efforts at the dialogue table." Jacobson also told a Senate hearing the US was still considering sanctions against those responsible for human rights violations and "will use those when we think the time is right." The talks have suffered stops and starts since they began, with some sessions postponed at the last minute.

In that vein, Vice President Jorge Arreaza indicated late Wednesday that negotiations planned for that day would instead take place "next week."

Force 'not solving problems'

Maduro, narrowly elected last year to succeed late longtime leader Hugo Chavez, has described the protests as a coup attempt in this oil-rich OPEC nation that has seen inflation of near 60 per cent.

People often stand in line for hours outside supermarkets and consider themselves lucky if they leave with basics such as sugar, milk or toilet paper.

Most economic experts blame the South American country's problems on a decade of rigid currency and price controls, as well rising debt, dependence on imports and stagnant economic growth.

The "use of brute force to limit freedom of expression stimulates more aggressive and dangerous protests that make dialogue more difficult," political analyst Luis Vicente Leon told AFP.

"You can crush your opponent, but you are not solving the problems."