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Venezuela: Protesters barricade Caracas entry points

  |   Feb. 24, 2014 at 3:11 PM
CARACAS, Venezuela, Feb. 24 (UPI) -- Protesters in Venezuela set fire to debris Monday to block at least four points of access to Caracas, the Spanish-language El Universal newspaper reported.

The development came as anti-government protests entered their third week.

The Russian Foreign Ministry Monday urged Western nations not to interfere in Venezuela's internal affairs, and to respect the Constitution and the authority of President Nicolas Maduro. The ministry said in a statement Moscow considers "meddling from the outside in the internal affairs of a sovereign state" unacceptable, Venezuela's state-run teleSUR network reported.

Maduro called Sunday for a peace forum with many sectors, not just the opposition. The proposed Wednesday conference would include all domestic sectors -- including religious groups, union leaders, artists, "older adults" and people with handicaps, Maduro told teleSUR as several hundred mostly elderly people marched in downtown Caracas in support of the regime.

The march came a day after hundreds of thousands of anti-regime demonstrators marched through downtown Caracas.

The student-led mass demonstration was followed by a night of violent clashes between anti-regime activists and security forces in which dozens of people were injured, authorities said.

The demonstrations, which started Feb. 4 in the western Andean border state of Tachira to protest soaring crime, quickly spread to other cities and encompassed more issues, including basic goods shortages and an economy buckling under an annual inflation rate of 56 percent, among the highest in the world.

At least eight people have been killed since mid-February and scores of others have been injured.

Opposition sympathizers estimate the number of dead and injured is much higher, the Wall Street Journal said.

"I will carry a proposal for peace with equality, sovereignty and respect for government and I will give that proposal to the federal government council Monday," as a prelude to the proposed Wednesday conference, Maduro told the TV network.

When he first mentioned the peace conference Saturday, he said it would seek to "neutralize violent groups."

Opposition leader and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles -- who had called for Saturday's anti-regime demonstration -- said he would participate in Monday's council meeting but did not say whether he would participate in a Wednesday conference.

"Shame on you," he told Maduro in a Twitter message Sunday night. "You are destroying this country."

"Around the world people are accusing you of genocide, Nicolas," Capriles said in a follow-up Twitter message. "You're a serious mistake in the history of our Venezuela."

Maduro -- who denies links to armed pro-regime vigilantes, accused by the opposition of being behind much of the bloodshed -- told teleSUR the opposition must end "terrorism and guarimbas," who Maduro defined as anti-government protesters with no agenda except to cause trouble.

Maduro, who calls himself a socialist "for the fatherland," repeated his allegation protesters were "right-wing fascists" who were plotting a "coup" with U.S. instigation to destroy him and his regime.

Washington has flatly denied any link to the unrest, calling Maduro's allegations "baseless and false."

Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement Friday expressing concern over the escalating protests in the South American country.

Maduro told the network Sunday the opposition and those supporting it were "encouraging hatred to see if a madman appears and kills me."

"I will live with the blessing and grace of God to fulfill the dream of Hugo Chavez," he said, referring to Venezuela's late president.

Maduro, a 51-year-old former bus driver and union organizer, was elected as Chavez' successor last April, beating out Capriles with 1.5 percent of the vote separating the two candidates.

Capriles is a 40-year-old law school graduate and governor of Miranda, Venezuela's second-most-populous state. He has called himself a center-left politician with progressive stands.

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