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”.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions