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A Venezuelan Spring? Three killed as armed vigilantes on motorcycles attack anti-government protesters

The unrest comes on the heels of a wave of increasingly violent, student-led protests that have spread across the country in the past two weeks

At least three people have been shot dead in Caracas after a peaceful protest produced violent clashes between pro- and anti-government activists. Two died when armed men on motorcycles began firing into a crowd of opposition demonstrators, who had gathered to protest the policies of the country’s socialist President, Nicolas Maduro. A third man was killed later as the violence spread through the city.

The deaths followed two weeks of increasingly heated protests across Venezuela, the most widespread unrest since Mr Maduro’s controversial election victory last year. Officials said afterwards that some 25 people had been injured in the clashes on Wednesday, more than 30 arrested, at least five police cars burned and some government offices vandalised. The protesters reportedly threw stones at the security forces and burned tyres in the streets.

Around 10,000 people attended the opposition rally in central Caracas, which began calmly as the crowd marched to the federal prosecutor’s office to call for the release of 13 fellow activists detained during similar protests in recent days.

Mr Maduro, a 51-year-old former bus driver, succeeded his political mentor, Hugo Chavez, following Mr Chavez’s death in March 2013. Opposition critics say his administration has presided over and exacerbated the country’s problems with corruption, crime and cost of living: Venezuela has the highest inflation rate in the region and one of the highest murder rates in the world. Leopoldo Lopez, leader of the opposition party Popular Will, told the crowd, “All of these problems – shortages, inflation, insecurity, the lack of opportunities – have a single culprit: the government.”

As the rally concluded and the crowd began to disperse, some protesters clashed with police, at which point the men on motorcycles – thought to be pro-government vigilantes – appeared and opened fire. The crowd scattered, but one anti-government protester, later identified as 24-year-old student Bassil da Costa, was shot in the head and died.

A pro-government activist, Juan “Juancho” Montoya, was also shot in the melée. The president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, announced afterwards that Mr Montoya had been “vilely assassinated by the fascists”. It remains unclear if he and Mr Da Costa were shot by the motorcyclists or by other gunmen. As dusk fell, the violence spread east towards the wealthy Chacao district, where a third protester was shot dead.

In a televised address, a defiant Mr Maduro blamed the unrest on a “neo-fascist upsurge”. The opposition protesters, he said, “want to topple the government through violence. They have no ethics, no morals... We will not permit any more attacks.”

On Thursday, authorities issued a warrant for Mr Lopez, for charges including instigating crime and terrorism. Lopez, ex-mayor of Chacao, said he was simply a scapegoat and that government supporters had posed as student protesters in order to instigate the violence and then blame it on the opposition. Lopez told Reuters: “I’m innocent. I have a clear conscience because we called for peace.”

Lopez and other opposition politicians insisted the protests would continue in spite of the bloodshed. Henrique Capriles, who ran against Mr Maduro in 2012’s presidential race, tweeted, “We condemn violence! We know the vast majority rejects and condemns it.”

Antonio Ledezma, the mayor of Caracas, said, “Just as we condemn the violent incidents, we say to all Venezuelan families that we have to remain ready to continue fighting, calmly but with determination. You have to know, Mr Maduro, that whatever you do, what started today will not stop until change is achieved in peace and with democracy for all Venezuelans.”

The protests have been largely populated by students, who have also staged mass demonstrations in the western cities of San Cristobal and Merida, where at least three people were injured by gunfire during protests on Wednesday, according to the AP.

Venezuela had an inflation rate of 56.2 per cent last year, and thanks to strict foreign exchange controls its citizens have recently faced shortages of medicine, spare parts, food, milk and toilet paper.

While the opposition blames Mr Maduro, the President has blamed unnamed “saboteurs” and “profit-hungry corrupt businessmen”.