Thursday, 6 July 2017

Venezuelan lawmakers beaten, besieged in latest violence

(Reuters) - Pipe-wielding government supporters burst into Venezuela's opposition-controlled congress on Wednesday, witnesses said, attacking lawmakers and journalists in the latest flare-up of violence during a political crisis.
By mid-afternoon, a crowd of roughly 100 people was still besieging the building, trapping people inside. Some of the those outside brandished pistols and some shouted they would cut water and power supplies, witnesses said.
The crowd gathered from early outside the National Assembly building in downtown Caracas, chanting in favor of President Nicolas Maduro. By late morning, several dozen people ran past the gates with rudimentary weapons and went on the attack.
They injured at least three opposition lawmakers who stumbled bloodied and dazed around the assembly's corridors, witnesses said. Some journalists also were robbed.
The worst-hurt lawmaker, Federico De Grazia, was hit on the head, fell unconscious, and was eventually taken by stretcher to an ambulance. His family later said he was out of critical condition and being stitched up.
"This is Venezuela today," said Freddy Guevara, the assembly vice president and opposition leader. "Criminals attack the National Assembly, the armed forces are complicit in this madness, but the people and the lawmakers resist and advance."
Throughout the day, explosions apparently from fireworks were occasionally heard around the congress building.
Downtown Caracas is a traditional stronghold for the government and there has been a string of melees there since the opposition thrashed the ruling Socialist Party in December 2015 parliamentary elections.
In a speech during a military parade for Independence Day, Maduro condemned the "strange" violence in the assembly and asked for an investigation. But he also challenged the opposition to speak out about violence from within its ranks.
During three months of anti-government unrest that has killed at least 90 people, young demonstrators have frequently attacked security forces with stones, homemade mortars and Molotov cocktails, and burned property. They killed one man by dousing him in gasoline and setting him on fire.
"I want peace for Venezuela," Maduro said. "I don't accept violence from anyone."
Maduro opponents are demanding general elections to end socialist rule and solutions to the OPEC nation's brutal economic crisis. The government says the opposition is seeking a violent coup with U.S. support.
Earlier, the Venezuelan police officer who staged a helicopter attack on government buildings in Caracas last week appeared in an internet video vowing to continue fighting.
"Once again we are in Caracas, ready and willing to continue our struggle for the liberation of our country," police pilot Oscar Perez said in the video, wearing a military uniform and wool cap, with a Venezuelan flag and rifle behind him.

Perez had not been seen since he hijacked a helicopter last week and flew through Caracas pulling a "Freedom" banner. He opened fire and dropped grenades on the Interior Ministry and Supreme Court but nobody was injured.
Maduro, 54, the successor to Hugo Chavez, called that attack a terrorist assault to overthrow him and lambasted Western nations for not condemning it.
But many government critics doubt the official version, and some even suggested it may have been staged to divert attention from the country's economic and political crises.
In the video, Perez said the attack was "perfectly achieved" with no collateral damage "because it was planned, because we are not murderers like you, Mr. Nicolas Maduro."
Perez said he had staged an emergency landing on the Caribbean coast following the attack, and returned to the capital after hiking through mountains. The Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Perez, who has portrayed himself as a James Bond-cum-Rambo figure on social media, also is an actor who starred in a 2015 movie about the rescue of a kidnapped businessman.
Although he has claimed wider support within the security forces, Perez's actions so far appear to be a rogue stunt organized by a small group of disaffected policemen.
Venezuela's opposition has been staging demonstrations against Maduro for three months, saying he has created a dictatorship and destroyed the country's economy.
They say Maduro is seeking to consolidate control through a Constituent Assembly, a superbody that will be elected at the end of July. The opposition has promised to boycott the vote, which it says is rigged in favor of the ruling Socialist Party.
"We are fully sure of what we are doing and if we must give up our lives, we will hand them over to the people," Perez said in the video. "If this constituent assembly takes place, there will be no Venezuela."
Before the attack on them, opposition lawmakers held a session denouncing the president as a "dictator" and approving a plebiscite that the opposition is organizing for July 16, asking Venezuelans what they think of Maduro's plans.

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