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Venezuelan security forces fired rubber bullets into the air Wednesday to break up a crowd of activists following the largest protests against President Nicolas Maduro's government since he was elected almost a year ago.
Three people were killed during standoffs including two student demonstrators and a member of militant community groups known as "colectivos," according to local media. Twenty-five people have been injured during the protests.
The fatalities came at the end of rival demonstrations to support and denounce Maduro's government.
Under the banner "The Exit," meaning Maduro's departure, hard-line opposition groups have been holding protests around the country for the past two weeks to complain about rampant crime, corruption and economic hardships.
"All of these problems — shortages, inflation, insecurity, the lack of opportunities — have a single culprit: the government," Leopoldo Lopez, a Harvard University–trained former mayor, told a crowd of about 10,000 people gathered at Plaza Venezuela in Caracas.
Government supporters have countered with marches of their own to express backing for Maduro, who has accused opponents of trying to violently oust him from power just two months after his party's candidates prevailed by a landslide in mayoral elections.
Maduro, a 51-year-old former bus driver and union activist who has pinned his presidency on maintaining the legacy of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, says right-wing "fascists" are seeking to destabilize his government and topple him.
"A Nazi-fascist current has emerged again in Venezuela. They want to lead our nation to violence and chaos," Maduro told pro-government demonstrators clad in the red colors of the ruling Socialist Party.
The marches were held as part of Wednesday's "Youth Day" commemoration, which celebrates the participation of students in a 19th century independence battle against colonial authorities.
"We are the young revolutionaries, hand in hand with the Venezuelan government," shouted one Maduro supporter at the pro-government rally in Caracas.
About 20 demonstrators have been arrested since Popular Will and another hard-line opposition group began calling for street protests to force Maduro's exit from power two weeks ago.
Opposition activists said armed government supporters belonging to "colectivos" attacked and shot at people protesting in the western Andean city of Merida on Tuesday, injuring five.
"They were attacked by the colectivos while exercising their right to peaceful protest," said Tamara Suju, who is tracking the violence for Popular Will.
Maduro blamed the Merida incident on opposition provocateurs posing as Socialist Party sympathizers.
"They cannot take us back to the scenes of 2002," he said in a reference to massive street protests that culminated in a brief, military-led coup against Chavez.
Some student protesters in the state of Merida have thrown rocks and blocked roads. Policemen have been injured during student-led protests in another western state, Tachira.
On Tuesday, roughly 500 people marched through Caracas to protest a newsprint shortage that has forced dozens of newspapers to close. Newspaper unions are demanding that the Maduro government import newsprint to secure their survival.
“We are here because freedom of expression is fundamental for victims of human rights abuses, because without newspapers we cannot tell our stories,” Iris Medina, of the human rights group Cofavic, told the Caracas daily El Universal.
The current protests in Venezuela have been much smaller than the 2002 wave. Many in the opposition favor a more moderate approach.
"While there are plenty of reasons to protest, there does not seem to be an agenda for the current wave. #LaSalida (The Exit) is not a strategy, it's a hashtag!" complained the anti-government blog Caracas Chronicles.
"The street protests, along with the public bickering they are engendering, are creating a false sense that our actions can undo the regime, while at the same time casting doubt on the opposition's unity."
Al Jazeera and wire services
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