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Venezuela opposition keeps up pressure in streets

HANNAH DREIER
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Demonstrators protest against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, April 6, 2017. Tens of thousands of demonstrators shut down Venezuela's capital on Thursday, blocking the city's main artery to protest what they call an attempted coup by the socialist administration. Many carried signs reading "No to Dictatorship" as they crowded Caracas' principal highway that cuts from the city's wealthy eastern section to the downtown. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Tens of thousands of Venezuelans shut down much of the capital on Thursday and clashed with police to protest what they call an attempted coup by the socialist administration.

It was the largest opposition demonstration the country has seen in half a year. Many protesters carried signs reading "No More Dictatorship" as they crowded the principal highway that cuts from Caracas' wealthy eastern section to downtown.

Later in the day, a smaller group confronted lines of riot police who turned the crowd away from the city center with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons. Some young protesters covered their faces with bandanas and threw rocks and spent tear gas canisters. Opposition leaders said more than a dozen protesters were injured in the clashes.

The South American country has seen near-daily protests since the Supreme Court issued a ruling nullifying congress last week. The court pulled that decision back after it came under heavy criticism, but opposition leaders said the attempt to invalidate a branch of power revealed the administration's true dictatorial nature.

Dubbed a "traffic jam against the coup," Thursday's demonstration was an attempt to show the government that the opposition will not let up pressure until early national elections are called. Many of those those who braved the choking tropical heat under umbrellas and baseball caps said they had also participated in a Tuesday protest that led to handful of serious injuries and arrests.

"When I left this morning, my grandkids said: 'Grandma, aren't you scared?' But I told them you cannot let yourself be intimidated. You have to get rid of this government," said Asusena Aquilera, a 57-year-old retired finance worker who came to the protest with a flag draped around her shoulders. She said she is struggling to get enough to eat amid food shortages.

The government responded to Thursday's march by creating a traffic jam of its own, closing more than a dozen Caracas metro stations and staging its own counter-protest in the heart of the city. Many streets were blocked off in the early morning and some workers decided to stay home after seeing the traffic snarls.

Bodyguards escorted opposition leaders through the crowds at the opposition protest. Government supporters wearing red shirts and carrying pipes could be seen on idling motorcycles at the outskirts of the march.

Last week's court ruling led to an outcry from the international community over what some countries said was a turn toward dictatorship. The Organization of American States issued its strongest warning to President Nicolas Maduro yet and several countries around the region recalled their ambassadors. Even Venezuela's most recognizable international movie star, Edgar Ramirez, joined the calls for protests.

On Wednesday lawmakers, some still injured from the previous day's protest, began a symbolic process of removing Supreme Court justices.

Later that day, the president of a leading Venezuelan opposition party took refuge at the residence of the Chilean ambassador in Caracas and asked for protection.

The Chilean Foreign Ministry said Roberto Enriquez, president of the COPEI Christian democrat opposition party, had been granted guest status there. The party said other COPEI leaders had been arrested in recent days and accused of treason. Human rights groups say Venezuela is holding more than 100 political prisoners.

Caracas saw two similarly large anti-government demonstrations last fall, but protesters on Thursday said they thought this time might be different, with steady protests combined with escalating international criticism and intolerable shortages of food and medicine.

"This time we are not going to let up the pressure. I can't believe the government has been sitting with its arms crossed watching this country just fall apart," said maintenance worker Freddy Munoz as he ate a tamarind slush to cool down. "I have three little kids at home. We can't find them milk."

One test will come when Venezuelans take next week off for Easter holidays.

Moderate opposition leader Henrique Capriles said the point is not the protests, it's the ultimate outcome.

"We're not taking to the streets because we don't like Maduro," he said. "The way we get rid of Maduro is with elections. That is how we change the worst government our country has ever seen."

At a counter-rally, socialist party heavyweight Diosdado Cabello said the mounting protests were unsustainable.

"Today they gave the people the gift of a traffic jam. These guys are desperate," he said.

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Hannah Dreier is on Twitter at https://twitter.com/hannahdreier. Her work can be found at https://www.ap.org/explore/venezuela-undone .