Venezuela protest leader detained as rival rallies held

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Venezuela protest leader Lopez hands himself into authorities as rival rallies take to the streets in Caracas.

Venezuela protest leader Lopez hands himself into authorities as rival rallies take to the streets in Caracas.

SAO PAULO - Six days after violent protests broke out in Venezuela, thousands of pro- and anti-government protesters have attended rival rallies in the country's capital Caracas.

Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez appeared in public for the first time since an arrest warrant was issued against him on February 13 and urged Venezuelans to gather in protest

After addressing thousands of supporters in the east of the city, he handed himself over to the National Guard and remains in custody, local sources say.

The protest leader is wanted for inciting violence but denies the charges against him and says the "dictatorial" government is guilty of handing out "unjust, corrupt justice" and using him as a "scapegoat."

The recent protests have been violent and bloody as three protesters have been killed since the protests began.

Lopez, who heads the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) party and is the former mayor of the eastern Chacao district of Caracas, told anti-government protesters to march on the Ministry of Justice.

Tuesday's opposition rally had not been sanctioned by the local authorities, the city's mayor, Jorge Rodriguez, warned.

Many opposition protesters have accused the National Guard of preventing them from attending rallies.

Government supporters have flooded the city center, local media reported, many of which are oil workers gathering to witness the signing of a collective contract.

- Highly-polarized

Venezuelan authorities have blamed both Lopez and the U.S. government for stirring up anti-government protests in the country, both of which deny the claims.

On Sunday, while still in hiding, Lopez issued a video statement denying he had committed any crime or incited violence.

The protests have once again showed how highly-polarized Venezuela remains. Protesters are calling for President Nicolas Maduro's ouster, but also have a long list of grievances including the country's high rate of inflation, unacceptable levels of crime and difficulties in gaining access to basic products.

The opposition says the government's stranglehold over the country is to blame, saying the government’s problems were down to corrupt businessmen and "saboteurs" from the country's élite.

Some countries have voiced concern over the events in Caracas, including UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, who was on a visit Tuesday to the Brazilian capital, Brasilia.

Hague said the UK was "worried" by what was happening in Venezuela, particularly the government's apparent attempts to suppress the protests: "Peaceful protests are a right that must be respected," he said at a press conference.

The opposition, however, has looked to neighboring Brazil for support and leadership.

Regional commentators say neighboring countries have failed to respond to the crisis because they are busy dealing with their own internal problems: Brazil has experienced social unrest in the lead up to the World Cup; Argentina is trying to steer its economy out of dangerous waters; and others which enjoy cheap Venezuelan oil are unlikely to rock the boat.

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