Student leader killed in Venezuela

Protest leader shot as Venezuelan security forces and armed paramilitaries advanced into San Cristobal

Firefighters attempt to extinguish a bus set on fire by anti- government protesters in San Cristóbal, March 9, 2014.
Orlando Parada/AFP/Getty Images

A student leader was fatally shot Monday night in the western university city of San Cristóbal after a long day of street clashes in which Venezuelan security forces attacked and dismantled barricades at key intersections, the city’s mayor said.

The slain student leader, Daniel Tinoco, was shot in the chest after dark, San Cristóbal Mayor Daniel Ceballos said via Twitter. The opposition politician did not say who might have killed Tinoco but tweeted that armed paramilitaries allied with the government known as "colectivos" had battled protesters along with the National Guard. The death of Tinoco brought the number of fatalities to at least 22 in five weeks of unrest.

Local TV reporter Beatriz Font said there were unconfirmed reports of at least two others wounded by gunfire after dark in the city of 600,000 people where student-led protests erupted last month and where anti-government unrest has been fiercest. The human rights group PROVEA tweeted that one student was seriously wounded by a bullet.

National Guardsmen firing tear gas and plastic shotgun pellets had battled protesters all day in residential neighborhoods, Font said by phone. Font said Tinoco was "one of the students who was always out on Carabobo Avenue giving interviews. He was really enthusiastic."

On Tuesday morning, national guardsmen launched another assault on an affluent neighborhood in San Cristóbal. At least two armored cars burst through civilian-made barricades, reports Al Jazeera correspondent David Ariosto, while a line of guardsmen in full riot gear fired tear gas at protestors. Demonstrators, carrying sticks and shields, fled as at least 30 guardsmen advanced on their position.

President Nicolas Maduro last week launched a "peace conference" at the state level in San Cristóbal, but the opposition has refused to participate until Maduro releases jailed protesters and takes other steps.

The weeks of protests that have roiled Venezuela began in San Cristóbal when students angry about the attempted sexual assault of a classmate took to the streets.

The protests soon spread to other cities and attracted mostly members of the middle class fed up with soaring inflation, shortages of basic goods and one of the world's highest murder rates.

In San Cristóbal, Caracas and other cities, opposition demonstrators have erected barricades of debris and garbage to block streets and snarl traffic. In some cases, demonstrators say they are trying to protect themselves from pro-government strongmen in "colectivos."

Maduro has said the protests are meant to destabilize and overthrow his government. Both pro- and anti-government physicians marched in Caracas on Monday, which was National Doctors Day in Venezuela.

While government doctors marched unimpeded to the presidential palace, physicians allied with the opposition were blocked by national police.

In San Cristóbal, Font and other witnesses said guardsmen fired tear gas, sometimes at nearby residential buildings.

Ceballos also said the city had seen an upswing in vandalism by pro-government groups.

"Where the government sees a barricade, where it sees paramilitaries, in truth there are just citizens — women, men, families — who are defending themselves from armed groups that come out at dawn to beat the communities, to shoot, to burn vehicles, to generate acts of vandalism," Ceballos said.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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