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Venezuela deaths rise as unrest claims student and biker

Opposition supporters march protest against Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas February 22, 2014. REUTERS/Christian Veron
Opposition supporters march protest against Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas February 22, 2014. REUTERS/Christian Veron

By Daniel Wallis and Tomas Sarmiento

CARACAS (Reuters) - A female student and a young supermarket worker were the latest fatalities from Venezuela's political unrest as the death toll from 10 days of violence rose on Saturday to at least eight.

Both sides are mourning supporters killed in the worst turmoil since President Nicolas Maduro narrowly won an election in April 2013 to replace the late socialist leader Hugo Chavez.

The government blames "fascist groups" seeking a coup like the one that briefly ousted Chavez 12 years ago, while the opposition is accusing troops and pro-Maduro militants of attacking peaceful demonstrators.

Opposition officials and local media in central Carabobo state said a 23-year-old student, Geraldine Moreno, died in hospital on Saturday after being shot in the face with rubber bullets as security forces broke up a protest there on February 19.

"They told us there was nothing more they could do," Moreno's distraught mother, Rosa Orozco, told a local paper.

Officials in the capital Caracas said a 29-year-old man, Santiago Enrique Pedroza, was killed late on Friday when he rode his motorcycle into a cable strung across a main road in the eastern, middle-class neighborhood of Horizonte.

Anti-government protesters have repeatedly blocked streets in the area with trash, which they sometimes set on fire. Police and National Guard troops have often used teargas to scatter demonstrators before clearing away the obstacles.

"He was on his way home, he couldn't see the cable because of the darkness, and it slit his throat," Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres told state television.

"This was a young, hard-working man who had nothing to do with the insanity unleashed by these fascist right-wing murderers," Torres said.

Five people have died from gunshot wounds, beginning on February 12 when two opposition supporters and a pro-government loyalist were shot after a peaceful opposition protest in central Caracas degenerated into running battles between riot police and hooded demonstrators.

Two other people were shot dead at protests around the country in the following days, and a sixth was run over by a car during a melee.

At dusk on Saturday, a couple of hundred opposition supporters hurled stones at police who fired back teargas near east Caracas' Plaza Altamira, a hot-bed of opposition activism that has seen similar scuffles most nights in the last week.

The focus for the most serious trouble had been in the western states of Tachira and Merida, where the government has vowed to take "special measures" to restore order.

Residents said the situation in general was calmer than of late, but an opposition official said four people were hurt when government supporters on motorbikes attacked an opposition march in San Cristobal, capital of Tachira state.

BIG PEACEFUL RALLIES

In the center of the capital and in the provincial cities of Lara, Aragua and Trujillo, tens of thousands of government supporters decked out in mostly Socialist red marched on Saturday at festive rallies dubbed "Women for Peace."

"We don't want any more deaths," Andreina Tarazon, minister for women and gender equality, said at the demonstration in Caracas. "The people have decided to be free, and like a mother defends her child, that's how we'll defend the fatherland."

Meanwhile in Caracas, just a few blocks from where the motorcyclist died overnight, several thousand opposition supporters gathered in the El Marques neighborhood to hear speeches and chant slogans.

"We're against violence. This a peaceful demonstration, 100 percent," said student Juan Perez, 25, as he purchased a yellow, blue and red hat, the colors of the Venezuelan flag.

Nearby, some opposition protesters waved large photographs of suspected state security agents captured on video appearing to fire pistols at demonstrators who were hurling stones at police after the February 12 march.

Speaking at a news conference late on Friday, Maduro said he would not defend anyone shooting at protesters.

"After I saw the photos I had them detained," he said, referring to the agents, widely believed to be members of the national intelligence service, Sebin.

"If any of them was involved in someone being wounded by a bullet, or in one of the deaths, they will pay with prison. I won't protect anyone who shoots anyone else at a demonstration," he said.

Maduro has publicly criticized Sebin for having agents on the streets, and on February 18 he replaced its director.

The opposition is demanding that the president resign over rampant crime, high inflation, shortages of basic products, and what opposition members see as repression of political opponents.

Maduro says the protests are a pretext for a planned coup, similar to the short-lived one in 2002. However, there have been no indications that the military, which was the decisive factor 12 years ago, would turn on him now.

On Friday, Maduro urged U.S. President Barack Obama to hold talks with his government and suggested the two nations restore ambassadors, just a day after his government slammed the U.S. leader's comments on Venezuela as a "new, gross interference."

(Additional reporting by Girish Gupta and Brian Ellsworth in Caracas, and Javier Farias in San Cristobal; editing by Gunna Dickson and David Gregorio)

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