May 11, 2014 / 5:24 PM / 5 years ago

Venezuela frees most students detained in camp raids

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela said on Sunday it had freed most of the 243 youth activists arrested in raids last week on street camps set up to protest against President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during his weekly broadcast "en contacto con Maduro" at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, in this May 6, 2014 handout provided by the Miraflores Palace. REUTERS/Miraflores Palace/Handout via Reuters

Although the government hoped the demolition of four camps in Caracas would snuff out a three-month protest movement, activists vowed the measure had only strengthened their resolve to demonstrate against Maduro.

The students had been camping for weeks outside U.N. offices on a major highway, and in several other public squares.

The Venezuelan public prosecutor’s office said in a statement that 11 detainees had been kept behind bars, accused of a range of crimes including possession of arms and drugs.

Authorities freed 155 with cautions and orders to report to courts periodically, and instructed 15 to undergo medical treatment for drug abuse, the statement added.

Anti-Maduro protests have been raging since February, with activists complaining about high inflation and crime rates, scarcities of basic goods, and repression of opponents.

Maduro, the 51-year-old successor to the late Hugo Chavez, says the demonstrations are part of a wider, U.S.-backed “coup” attempt against him.

Maduro’s position in power does not appear under threat, given that the protests have not spread far from middle-class opposition enclaves, and military chiefs are behind him.

In what has been the OPEC member’s worst unrest in a decade, at least 42 people have died in violence around the protests - with victims on all sides - and about 800 have been injured.

About 160 people remain in jail in total from round-ups since February.

Demonstrators marched on Saturday to protest the breakup of the student camps, with masked youths battling riot police at the end of the rally in scenes that have become familiar to Venezuelans over the last three months.

Security forces again used tear gas to disperse the youths, who were throwing stones and petrol bombs.

Reporting by Diego Ore; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Sophie Hares

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