Objects placed by opposition protesters block a road in the Altamira neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. Violence is heating up in Venezuela as an opposition leader faces criminal charges for organizing a rally that set off escalating turmoil in the oil-rich, but economically struggling country. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – Paratroopers are heading to a Venezuelan border area torn by fierce clashes between police and anti-government protesters, while security forces are being accused of turning many parts of the country into free-fire zones in their bid to silence a rejuvenated movement challenging socialist rule.
President Nicolás Maduro's opponents charged Thursday that he has unleashed the military, police and civilian militias against those who blame the administration for hardships in a country that is rich in oil but struggling with overheated inflation and one of the world's worst homicide rates.
Violence has escalated across Venezuela since a Feb. 12 opposition rally that was followed by clashes between young activists and the National Guard in which three people died. At least three more deaths and dozens of injuries have occurred in protest violence since then.
Leopoldo López, the jailed opposition leader who organized the mass rally, was ordered early Thursday to remain in detention to face charges that include arson and criminal incitement.
The unrest has been particularly high in Táchira state, on Venezuela's western border with Colombia, where anti-government protesters have clashed with police and National Guard units, disrupting life in its capital, San Cristóbal.
Interior Minister Miguel Rodríguez Torres announced Thursday that a battalion of paratroopers was being sent to Táchira to help bring calm.
"These units will enable the city to function, so food can get in, so people can go about their normal lives. It's simply meant to restore order," he said.
San Cristóbal Vice Mayor Sergio Vergara, a member of the opposition, disputed that. He said that the government caused the troubles by cracking down on what had been peaceful protests and that as part of its campaign had cut off vital services in the city, including public transportation and the Internet.
Sending 3,000 paratroopers to a city of 600,000 people is "effectively part of an effort at repression being played out by the government across the country," Vergara said.
National Guard troops and members of pro-government militias have swarmed through the streets of Caracas and other cities firing volleys, at times indiscriminately, in repeated spasms of nighttime violence in recent days.
Henrique Capriles, the two-time presidential candidate of an opposition coalition, said the government is engaging in "brutal repression," in some cases breaking into apartment buildings to arrest people authorities accuse of being part of a plot for a coup against Maduro.
"What does the government want, a civil war?" Capriles asked at a news conference.
While several large demonstrations by thousands of people have been peaceful, smaller groups of protesters have lobbed fire bombs and rocks and blocked streets with flaming barricades of trash. Troops and police have responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and blasts from water cannons — as well as raids by gun-firing men from motorcycles.
The clashes with authorities as well as the pursuit of anti-government activists by troops and militias take place in darkness. During the day, Caracas has largely operated as normal, with businesses and schools open and people going about their business, while stocking up on groceries in case of further unrest.
Tensions could be high Friday in the city of Valencia, where a funeral was scheduled for a local beauty queen who was killed by a bullet this week while participating in a protest. The death of Genesis Carmona, a 22-year-old university student who had been Miss Tourism 2013 for Carabobo state, reverberated in this country that prizes beauty queens.