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Venezuela braces for new round of protests

Venezuela braced for duelling protests - pro- and anti-government - a day after police used tear gas to disperse students leading the biggest challenge yet to President Nicolas Maduro.

CARACAS: Venezuela braced on Saturday for duelling protests - pro- and anti-government - a day after police used tear gas to disperse students leading the biggest challenge yet to President Nicolas Maduro.

Maduro, a leftwing firebrand, has urged supporters to turn out in force for demonstrations "for peace and against fascism." He has said he himself will take part in the afternoon rally.

The pro-government gathering is meant to counter demonstrations on Friday in which hundreds of students took to the streets to denounce what they call awful living conditions in Venezuela under Maduro.

Soldiers fired tear gas and deployed water cannons to break up those demonstrations, which also demanded the release of nearly 100 protesters arrested in recent days.

The demonstrators mourned the death of three people killed in protests on Wednesday, two of them anti-government protesters.

Dozens more were injured in the unrest, which drew condemnation from regional neighbors Colombia and Chile.

Students were to march again on Saturday.

Wednesday's violence led to a security crackdown in cities across a country where the economy has been battered by inflation of more than 50 per cent.

The United Nations (UN) High Commission for Human Rights on Friday urged the Caracas government to bring those responsible for the violence to justice. The European Union also expressed concern.

Crowds of protesters have assembled in the capital in an anti-government movement launched 10 days ago by students who have received backing from some of the country's fractured opposition groups. Rampant crime, soaring inflation and basic goods shortages are their main grievances.

Seeking to quell the unrest, Maduro late Friday announced a 10-point plan to crack down on crime that includes disarming the population, increased police patrols, as well as unspecified "clear rules for television."

The protesters have demanded that Maduro step down, although opposition leaders have said that political conditions are not favourable at present for the president's exit.

Despite having the world's largest proven reserves of crude oil, the country has severe economic problems and a deep divide between rich and poor.

The past week has seen the biggest show of defiance to Maduro's leadership since he took over from the late Hugo Chavez last year.

Venezuela - with an institutionally socialist government dependent on oil revenues in a state-led system - has been hurt by a shortage of hard currency, while dwindling supplies of consumer goods have frustrated even some government supporters.

The government blames "bourgeois" local business interests for trying to profit from its largely low- and middle-income political base.

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