Venezuela seeks protest leader's arrest after deadly demonstrations

President Maduro says a coup is underway and that forces from the US spurred the violence

A man walks in front of a mural with painted images of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, left, independence hero Simon Bolivar and late President Hugo Chavez, in Caracas, Venezuela, Feb. 4, 2014.
Alejandro Cegarra/AP

A Venezuelan court on Thursday ordered the arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez on murder and terrorism charges linked to street protests that resulted in the deaths of three people on Wednesday.

Using a slogan "The Exit," the U.S.-educated Lopez has for two weeks helped organize sporadic demonstrations around the country to denounce President Nicolas Maduro for failing to control inflation, crime and product shortages.

The president accuses Lopez of sowing violence to try to stage a coup similar to the one 12 years ago that briefly ousted late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, though there is little indication that the protests could topple Maduro.

"We are facing a developing coup d'etat in Venezuela and the Bolivarian Revolution is going to triumph through the constitution, its laws and there will be peace in Venezuela," Maduro said at an official event in the central state of Aragua, according to the state's official news agency, AVN.

Maduro went further, implying U.S. influence in the violent protests.

"Due to a small group of irresponsible, violent leaders, filled with hatred and personal ambitions, funded in the U.S. of North America by neofascist groups," the president said.

Shortly before a Caracas court upheld a request from the Public Prosecutor's Office to order Lopez's arrest, the opposition leader blamed armed government supporters for firing on peaceful protesters.

"The government is playing the violence card, and not for the first time. They're blaming me without any proof ... I have a clear conscience because we called for peace," Lopez told Reuters. "We won't retreat and we can't retreat because this is about our future, about our children, about millions of people."

'Fascist violence' denounced

Venezuela's Minister of Interior, Justice, and Peace, Miguel Rodriguez Torres, said he is certain that Wednesday's violent demonstrations were "not protests of a social character but of a conspiratorial nature."

"It is not a spontaneous event, but there is scheming intended to set fire to the country in an irrational manner," Torres said, according to El Universal, a Venezuelan news agency.

He said the students who staged demonstrations Wednesday "were manipulated. The student demonstration was used to introduce infiltrators; involve a vanguard prepared in and out of Venezuela to spur violence and seek an unconstitutional exit."

With many Caracas residents staying at home on Thursday, there were sporadic student protests around the city. Some students blocked streets and burned tires.

"We want solutions to problems, not endless confrontation and violence," said student Manuel Armas, 19, outside the Alejandro Humboldt University, where about 200 protesters waved banners saying "No More Blood."

Students were also in the streets in western Andean regions, where there have been violent clashes in recent days.

Coming almost a year after the death of Chavez, the unrest has been the latest demonstration of the OPEC nation's polarization and the mutual mistrust between both political camps.

Wednesday's fatalities included two students and a community activist from a militantly pro-government neighborhood in the poor west end of Caracas.

Each side blamed the other in often virulent exchanges via Twitter, the country's preferred social network.

Scores of government supporters gathered on Thursday outside the ransacked Public Prosecutor's Office building, chanting pro-Maduro slogans and denouncing "fascist violence."

Maduro, a 51-year-old former bus driver and union activist who has staked his presidency on maintaining Chavez's leftist legacy, said further protests would not be allowed.

"They want to topple the government through violence," he said. "We will not permit any more attacks."

Al Jazeera and Reuters

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