Venezuela forces clear protest town barricades

A top military commander says the opposition stronghold of San Cristóbal has been cleared of protester barricades and his forces have retaken the city

A top military commander says the opposition stronghold of San Cristóbal has been cleared of protester barricades and his forces have retaken the city

SAO PAULO - Venezuelan security forces have retaken the city of San Cristóbal, an opposition stronghold in Tachira state in the southwest of the Andean country, and cleared barricades erected by demonstrators, a top military commander said on Monday.

Gen Vladimir Padrino López, the head of strategic operational command of the National Armed Forces, tweeted late on Sunday night that the city had been retaken and that the “curfew imposed by terrorists” in a number of streets, alluding to protesters' barricades, had been lifted.

“The state guarantees people's rights. Peaceful protest, without weapons, is constitutional,” the general said in a sequence of messages on Twitter. “Why then impose violence? We will put an end to the violence.”

The general emphasized that no one had been hurt as the barricades were dismantled. Government-loyal forces have previously been accused by the opposition of targeting protesters at the barricades during the two-month-long anti-government protests.

The opposition have in turned been blamed for using snipers to target security forces sent to disassemble the road blocks.

Tachira state governor José Vielma Mora, a member of President Nicolás Maduro's ruling Socialist party (PSUV), welcomed the operation to clear the city of barricades.

El Universal newspaper reported that that 200 police officers and other security forces came to the city on Sunday morning and “stormed barricades” where protesters, mainly students, continued to protest, detaining a dozen people in the process.

- New battle over death toll

Incipient anti-government protests began in San Cristóbal, and then spread to the capital Caracas and other major cities, including Mérida and Valencia.

San Cristóbal opposition mayor Daniel Ceballos was recently arrested and sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment for failing to have the barricades removed.

Leopoldo López, the leader of the Voluntad Popular opposition party of which Ceballos was a member, was also arrested on charges including treason, terrorism, inciting violence and murder. Although the most severe charges were dropped, he has now spent more than a month in prison and was last week denied bail.

As news of protest-related deaths continues to trickle out of the nation, a new war of words between the government and the opposition is brewing, this time over the number of people killed in the violence which began on February 4.

The government put the toll at 39 people.  

The opposition say the real number is lower, with 28 deaths, and that the government is purposefully inflating the figures to accuse the opposition of provoking the bloodiest chaos seen in the country in a decade.

The protests have sought to draw attention to a list of grievances including high murder rates, out-of-control inflation and the lack of everyday goods, but now also seek President Maduro's resignation.

Maduro appears to be safe for now, as there is little evidence the splintered opposition have the unity or, in some cases, even the desire to see the president leave or removed from office.

Both government and opposition supporters have fallen victim to the ongoing bloody unrest, which shows no sign of abating given the lack of dialogue between the two sides.

Copyright © 2014 Anadolu Agency