- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 19, 2014

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - Violent clashes flared up across Venezuela on Wednesday as the nation waited to learn what charges jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez will face for organizing mass protests that have breathed new life into the movement challenging socialist rule in the oil-rich nation.

Gunfire echoed through downtown Caracas as President Nicolas Maduro spoke on live TV for more than two hours Wednesday night denouncing what he calls a “fascist” plot to destabilize the country. Elsewhere, protesters set trash fires in streets or threw rocks at National Guard troops, who fired tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets.

There was no immediate word on whether there were any new casualties, after a week of demonstrations and clashes that have resulted in at least six deaths and more than 100 injuries.

Lopez, who dramatically surrendered to authorities before thousands of cheering supporters Tuesday, was supposed to appear before a judge inside a military jail to learn what charges he might face for organizing the protests that the government has blamed for the violence.


The hearing was closed and the outcome had not been announced by late Wednesday, but Maduro suggested in his speech that Lopez would remain in custody and face criminal charges.

“I said, ‘Send him to jail,’ and that’s what happened and that’s what will happen with all of the fascists,” Maduro said.

The government has accused Lopez, a 42-year-old former mayor and the leader of the Popular Will party, of attempting to foment a coup in the South American nation and authorities had said he could face charges that include homicide and causing grievous bodily harm.

Before the president’s speech, a judicial official told The Associated Press that prosecutors were leaning toward discarding homicide and terrorism charges, opting instead to pursue less serious counts such as arson and incitement to commit crimes. That would allow the possibility of Lopez being released pending trial, according to the official, who agreed to discuss the matter only if not quoted by name because the decision had not been made public.

Maduro made that seem unlikely. “I won’t allow him to challenge the people of Venezuela, the constitution,” he said.

The president also said he would take harsh measures in Tachira, an opposition stronghold on the western border with Colombia where there have been fierce clashes between National Guard troops and opposition protesters. Maduro said he is prepared to declare a “state of exception,” a form of martial law.

“If I have to decree a state of exception for Tachira and send in the tanks, I am ready to do it,” he said.

Early in the day, hundreds of supporters waited outside a courthouse for news of Lopez’s legal fate, watched over by National Guard troops. Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, a member of a different opposition party, showed up at one point in a sign of unity among the various foes of the Maduro government.

“We are all united in demanding the release of Leopoldo Lopez,” Ledezma told the AP. “We are rallying behind him.”

The crowd drifted away after hours of waiting when officials decided to hold the court hearing at the military jail outside the city where Lopez was being detained.

The opposition is planning marches across the country on Saturday to protest both his detention as well as the rampant crime, shortages of consumer goods and inflation rate of more than 50 percent that has made life difficult for many in the country of nearly 30 million people.

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