- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 11, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - Venezuelan authorities on Tuesday were investigating the death of a university student killed by gunfire at a protest against President Nicolas Maduro, as opposition leaders mapped out their next steps to push for new elections and government officials held a gathering to drum up state support.

Daniel Queliz, 20, was killed late Monday after being shot in the neck in Valencia, a city east of Caracas where students have actively participated in the protests that erupted April 1 following a Supreme Court decision to strip Congress of its last remaining powers - a decision later reversed.

It was not immediately clear where the bullet came from, though opposition leaders quickly decried the death as another example of the Venezuelan government’s excessive use of force in countering protests. Security forces have been using tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds, while several opposition leaders have been roughed up and bloodied while participating in demonstrations.

Government officials blame the opposition for inciting violence and detained 18 people Monday. Thus far, two people have died and dozens left injured in the protests.

Human rights organizations and countries including the United States are calling on Venezuela to allow protesters to gather and refrain from unnecessary use of force, adding to mounting international pressure for the Andean nation’s government to hold elections and respect democratic institutions.

“The existence of isolated acts of violence during protests cannot justify a blank restriction of the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression or the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force against demonstrators,” the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said Tuesday.

Queliz’s father told local media his son was at Monday’s demonstration “like any other youth,” when gunshots were fired and people began running. He said his son had “bad luck” to be caught in the melee.

“I need an answer from the highest level of the state,” Alexander Queliz said of his son’s death.

Members of the opposition-controlled National Assembly showed up at the National Guard’s headquarters in Caracas early Tuesday to deliver a document denouncing the government response to the protests. Speaking directly to officers at the National Guard’s entrance, National Assembly president Julio Borges said they could decide either to be the heirs of independence leader Simon Bolivar or “the bodyguards of Nicolas Maduro.”

The National Assembly later held a special meeting with dozens of civil society members to establish an agenda and create working groups with the goals of holding elections, letting humanitarian aid enter the country, restoring democratic institutions and freeing those deemed political prisoners.

Venezuela has struggled with triple-digit inflation, food and medical supply shortages amid an ongoing economic slump. According to human rights groups, there are more than 100 political prisoners in Venezuelan jails.

Opposition leaders contend the government is steadily spiraling toward authoritarianism. Authorities squashed an opposition campaign to hold a recall referendum on Maduro last year, and a date has yet to be set for gubernatorial elections that were supposed to take place in 2016. In the last 15 months, the Supreme Court has issued 56 rulings against the National Assembly, rendering it essentially powerless.

As the National Assembly decided its next steps, the government held a rally in Caracas to commemorate 15 years since the 2002 coup that briefly ousted Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s predecessor and mentor.

Officials also used the protest to garner support in rejecting the opposition’s continued call for protest.

“At 15 years from that swipe at the constitution and the hope of a people, today we continue fighting to defeat this continuing coup,” Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami said on Twitter.

The opposition announced plans for continued demonstrations throughout Easter Week Tuesday evening.

“We have two choices,” said Juan Requesens, a National Assembly member injured in a protest last week, a bandage still covering the gash above his left eye. “Stay at home, sitting down, watching how this government tightens itself in power. Or decide at once to get up.”


Associated Press writer Christine Armario in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.

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