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Two dead, 23 hurt in Venezuela protests

Two people died and 23 were injured as rival protests linked to Venezuela's deepening economic crisis exploded into violence on Wednesday, a prosecutor said.

CARACAS: Two people died and 23 were injured as rival protests linked to Venezuela's deepening economic crisis exploded into violence on Wednesday, a prosecutor said.

A pro-government demonstrator and a student were killed as demonstrations  both for and against Venezuela's government escalated.

"We have two dead, unfortunately a member of the (pro-government) group Juan Montoya, shot dead, and student Bassil DaCosta, also shot dead," as well as 23 injured, said Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz.

Unidentified assailants earlier fired into a rally outside the attorney general's office in Caracas -- one of several held by both supporters and foes of the government over President Nicolas Maduro's handling of Venezuela's ailing economy.

The OPEC member nation -- with an institutionally socialist government dependent on oil revenues in a state-led system -- sits atop the world's largest proven reserves of crude.

Yet its economy has been battered by inflation of more than 50 per cent a year.

It has had economic problems go from bad to worse amid shortages of hard currency while dwindling supplies of consumer goods have frustrated some government supporters.

The government blames what it calls "bourgeois" local business interests for trying to profit from the its largely low- and middle-income political base. It has engaged in privatizations and unpopular currency controls.

In a speech broadcast on state television, National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello denounced "the killing of a fighting member of the Bolivarian Revolution in the Plaza La Candelaria" some 200 metres (650 feet) from where the opposition supporters were rallying.

"This is a provocation from the right," Cabello charged, calling for "calm and sanity."

Thousands of students, accompanied by several opposition politicians, had converged in downtown Caracas to denounce the economic policies of Maduro, who succeeded the late Hugo Chavez as president last year.

A day earlier, five youths were shot when more motorcycle-riding gunmen opened fire on protests in the Andean city of Merida, local media and student groups have said. Another 10 students participating in the protests were arrested.

Protesters demanded the release of students detained in Merida and elsewhere during recent demonstrations in the country's interior.

"We will not be cowed," cried David Smolansky, a former student leader now mayor of the Caracas municipality of El Hatillo, challenging the government to "see who is stronger."

"They have taken our students prisoner. We want them released!" he shouted, as the flag-waving crowd chanted "it is going to fall, it is going to fall, this government is going to fall."

Elsewhere in Caracas and in other cities, waves of protesters clad in red -- the color of "Chavismo" -- gathered in support of Maduro.

They chanted slogans backing his "economic war" against speculators and private economic interests that he blames for the skyrocketing inflation and shortages.

State television had been showing images of the pro-government protests, which Maduro was scheduled to attend, while private channels showed intermittent images of the opposition demonstrations.

Late Tuesday, a government body that regulates the news media threatened sanctions against any media groups that "promote violence and create chaos in public life over the call to dialogue."

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who maintains he defeated Maduro in the last election but was cheated of the presidency, said violence was not the answer.

"Our country is going through a major crisis, and the last thing we need is more violence than we already have! Say NO to violence," Capriles urged.

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