CARACAS Venezuelan security forces on Thursday rounded up hundreds of youth activists camped in public spaces as part of protests against President Nicolas Maduro, an effort to snuff out the waning demonstration movement.
Troops staged pre-dawn raids to break up four improvised tent camps decorated with Venezuelan flags and signs bearing protest slogans, one of which had for weeks been blocking traffic along a main avenue of the capital.
Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez said soldiers arrested 243 people, accusing the students of using the camps as a base of operations to stage violent protests in other parts of the city.
"(Troops) impounded drugs, weapons, explosives ... all of the things that they were using every day to violent confront security forces every day," Torres told state television.
The near-daily protests of February and March, which saw clouds of tear gas and barricades of burning trash and tires, have waned sharply as opposition sympathizers took stock that Maduro is unlikely to be pushed from office.
Forty-one people have been killed according to official figures and nearly 800 injured. About 3,000 people have been arrested since February, with Thursday's latest round-up leaving about 450 people still in detention.
Francia Cacique, 24, the leader of the one of the camps, called the raid illegal and denied the students had been plotting subversive activities.
"They've come up with the excuse of drugs and weapons, which is totally false," Cacique told Reuters over cell-phone instant message, saying the detained protesters were being held at a Caracas military base. She was not arrested.
"I call on the world to help us and to realize that this is a dictatorship!"
Troops on Thursday morning were picking up the remnants of the camp, where students from all over the country had lived in tents, chatting and strumming guitars beneath banners with anti-government slogans including "Maduro, assassin."
Opposition demonstrators took to the streets in February to demand Maduro's resignation, complaining of soaring prices, chronic product shortages and abuse by security forces against protesters.
Maduro has called the protests an effort to overthrow him through constant disruptions of public order that have snarled traffic, preventing some people from obtaining medical treatment
Residents and other protesters outraged by the raid set up barricades along the main avenue of eastern Caracas near where one of the camps had been dismantled.
Neighbors, who were woken up by the 3 a.m. raid, protested, banging pots and pans as troops carried out the arrests.
(Additional reporting by Carlos Rawlins in Caracas, Girish Gupta in Medellin; writing by Brian Ellsworth; editing by Andrew Cawthorne and W Simon)