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EU calls for probe in Venezuela protest deaths

21 April 2017

There was a heavy security presence in Caracas and other flashpoint cities, with armored trucks and riot police guarding the main roads. There, he asked officers to allow the protesters to assemble peacefully, and held out a Bible. They were met by a curtain of tear gas and rubber bullets as they attempted to march to downtown Caracas. That decision was reversed three days later.

"I don't have any food in the fridge", said protester Jean Tovar, 32, who held rocks in his hands ready to throw at military police in Caracas. The dealership had been seeking damages from GM of 476 million bolivars - about $665 million at the official exchange rate, or $115 million on the black market where many Venezuelans are forced to turn to sell their increasingly worthless currency.

GM has said it was notified this week that a low-level court ordered an embargo of its plant, bank accounts and other assets in the country.

The State Department said Thursday it was reviewing details of the GM case but called on authorities to act swiftly and transparently to resolve the dispute.

Hundreds of workers desperate for information about their jobs gathered at the plant Thursday to meet with government and military officials, as well as representatives of the dealership that brought the lawsuit.

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The rallies were further fuelled when the government barred the opposition's best-known leader, two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, from running for office for 15 years. He didn't provide any evidence to back up the claim, and the opposition rejected it as an attempt to intimidate Venezuelans from exercising their constitutional right to protest. Machado said the government was trying to blame her party for the killing of a young woman that the administration itself was responsible for.

The minister said a preliminary investigation suggests that the Vente Venezuela attack on Ramirez was planned in advance.

Crowds on Thursday were smaller than the hundreds of thousands of people who flooded the streets of the capital, Caracas, holding rival ralies amid increasing tensions over the oil-rich country's political crisis.

Just minutes after they started on Thursday, police deployed tear gas in an effort to slow their advance.

"This is the moment", said Raquel Belfort, a 42-year-old protester in wealthier eastern Caracas on Thursday, sporting a hat in the yellow, blue and red colors of the Venezuelan flag. "We're fed up. We want elections to get Maduro out, because he's destroyed this country", said protester Ingrid Chacon, a 54-year-old secretary.

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The European Union added to the condemnation, calling the deaths of protesters "highly regrettable" and urging all sides to "de-escalate".

"It's time for the armed forces to realise that they're protecting corrupt leaders and not the Venezuelan people", said opposition lawmaker Jorge Millan, who represents part of the poor hilltop Caracas neighbourhood of 23 de Enero, once a government stronghold.

Decrying the "illegal judicial seizure of its assets" - including the facility's cars - as a "total disregard" of the company's legal rights, GM declared the "immediate cessation of its operations in the country". Government supporters, who also took to the streets on Wednesday at the urging of the president, dismiss the opposition marches as violent efforts to overthrow Maduro with the backing of ideological adversaries in the United States.

Rights group Penal Forum said more than 500 people were arrested in relation to Wednesday's protest and 334 remained in detention.

The sergeant was the third person reported killed in the protests over the past day and the eighth person to die in demonstrations over the past several weeks. Pro-government militias were blamed for two deaths on Wednesday, including that of a teenager in Caracas who was heading to a soccer game with friends.

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EU calls for probe in Venezuela protest deaths