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Venezuelans stage duelling protests

Supporters and opponents of Venezuela's leftist government staged duelling rallies in Caracas and other cities, in the latest wave of demonstrations that have left three people dead.

CARACAS: Supporters and opponents of Venezuela's leftist government staged duelling rallies on Saturday in Caracas and other cities, in the latest wave of demonstrations that have left three people dead.

Some 3,000 opponents dressed in white and carrying red, blue and yellow Venezuelan flags gathered in a posh neighbourhood of the capital of the oil-rich but economically troubled nation.

They filled a plaza in Caracas' Las Mercedes neighbourhood and spilled out into nearby streets.

Most were students, who have spearheaded nearly two weeks of protests against President Nicolas Maduro. Rampant crime, soaring inflation and basic goods shortages are their main grievances.

Two anti-government protesters died in a rally on Wednesday, as did a pro-Maduro demonstrator in violence that raised alarms throughout Latin America and as far away as Europe. Some 60 people were injured and 100 arrested.

"Before, we would not go out on the street because of crime. Now, we go out to protest and they kill us," said university student Isaac Castillo, 27.

"We young people have neither faith nor hope. There are no jobs and even if we get one it is not enough to make a decent living," Castillo told AFP.

In downtown Caracas, government supporters wearing the bright red symbolizing the leftist movement of the late Hugo Chavez and Maduro, his handpicked successor, filled several plazas.

Some protesters danced or did aerobic exercises to the rhythmic beating of drums played by their fellow demonstrators.

Protesters unfurled huge Venezuelan flags and pictures of South American liberation hero Simon Bolivar and of Chavez.

Maduro, who said on Friday that he planned to attend Saturday's rally, has said the protests against him signal the rumblings of a coup to depose him. He has warned that he will use force to prevent unauthorized street demos.

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.

On Friday, police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse a student rally. The movement they are spearheading poses the biggest challenge to Maduro since he won election last year following the death of Chavez from cancer.

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 percent.

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.

Seeking to quell the unrest, Maduro on 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.

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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