CARACAS (Reuters) - Armed pro-government groups attacked and shot at people protesting against President Nicolas Maduro’s government in western Venezuela, injuring five, activists said.
Men on motorbikes belonging to militant community groups known as “colectivos” attacked the demonstrators late on Tuesday in the Andean city of Merida, the activists said, the latest unrest over a series of anti-government protests in Venezuela.
There was no comment from government officials on the incident. They have been accusing hardline Venezuelan opposition leaders of promoting violent demonstrations as part of a wider strategy to bring down the 10-month-old Maduro government.
A human rights activists who works with the opposition party Popular Will said the five injured in Merida were aged between 15 and 34, and all had bullet-wounds.
“They were attacked by the colectivos while exercising their right to peaceful protest,” Tamara Suju said.
Government supporters say student protesters have been throwing rocks, attacking government offices, and blocking roads in the city.
Policemen have been injured during student-led protests in another western state, Tachira, officials say.
“They want to bring down the legitimate government that I lead. They are not going to achieve it,” Maduro said in a speech late on Tuesday.
“They are going to damage Venezuela ... They should correct their behavior in time. If they don’t ... I will apply the law and the constitution with absolute severity against coupsters, destabilizers and violent sectors, whoever they are.”
Opposition parties were planning an anti-government march in the capital Caracas on Wednesday, prompting some residents to stay at home for fear of violence.
Government supporters were also planning to rally.
Some 20 or so demonstrators have been arrested since Popular Will and another hardline opposition group began calling for street protests to promote the “exit” of Maduro two weeks ago.
Massive opposition protests in the past helped bring about a brief coup against Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez in 2002, but he returned after a 36-hour detention when the military swung behind him and supporters poured onto the streets.
The current protests in Venezuela have been drawing only a few hundred people at a time, and have also split the opposition, where many favor a more moderate approach.
Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne in Caracas, Javier Farias in Tachira; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Diego Ore and Sophie Hares