CARACAS Venezuela's three-month protest movement has dwindled to a hard core of a few hundred violent troublemakers and the unrest should be snuffed out by July, a top security official said.
Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez, who has been the public face of the government crackdown on demonstrators, told Reuters authorities were focused on about 100 radical opponents in Caracas and 100-200 elsewhere around the nation.
"They're changing the tactics of subversion," the 50-year-old army major-general said, pausing to take phone calls about the latest arrests on the streets of Caracas.
"First it was massive (marches), then street barricades, then tents. Now's it's very focused - they burn a vehicle or a ministry, they attack an official," said Rodriguez, who last week participated in a 3 a.m. raid on protest camps.
The socialist government has cast the protest movement as a U.S.-supported coup plan, while foes say months of marches and clashes are the product of economic hardship and repression.
Numbers have dropped in recent weeks, but a rump of masked youth activists still take to the streets near-daily. Forty-two people have died in Venezuela's worst unrest in a decade.
Rodriguez, a friend of late leader Hugo Chavez, has become a hate figure for activists who view him as a ruthless enforcer.
Rights groups have accused National Guard troops and police of using excessive force, and sometimes torture, in the round-up of nearly 3,000 people since early February.
Though the government has acknowledged some abuses and 12 officials are detained, it says security forces have in fact been restrained in the face of extreme provocation including gunmen and demonstrators using petrol bombs and rocks.
"We're never going to use extreme violence to finish off these protests," Rodriguez said, predicting, however, that the streets would be calm again by July when schools and universities break up for the summer holidays.
Many Venezuelans, though, believe sporadic protests will continue so long as the causes - rampant violent crime, soaring consumer prices and a scarcity of basic goods - continue.
Officials say rights groups and opposition media have given a false impression of brutality against innocent protesters, whereas there have also been fatalities on the government side.
"They shot a policeman in the neck. They slit the throat of a motorbike-rider," he said, referring to an incident in which protesters strung a cable across a road. "A small section of society has gone crazy, lost respect for life."
Rodriguez alleges local activists are the spearhead of an international conspiracy to topple President Nicolas Maduro.
That has brought denials from the U.S. State Department and others named, and mockery from opposition leaders who have dubbed him the "bumbling detective" or a Venezuelan version of "Agent 86" from a 1960s American comedy show satirizing spies.
(Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Kieran Murray)