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Venezuelans take to streets en masse for rival rallies

Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets of Caracas in marches for and against President Nicolas Maduro's government, as the nation's massive divide became ever more evident.

CARACAS: Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets of Caracas in marches for and against President Nicolas Maduro's government on Saturday, as the nation's massive divide became ever more evident.

The protests - which began on February 4 - are seen as the biggest test yet to socialist leader Maduro since he succeeded late leftist icon Hugo Chavez last year, with the country's economic problems at the heart of often bloody marches that have left 10 people dead and scores injured.

Saturday's competing mass rallies in the capital laid bare a chasm between those who support Maduro and those who oppose him, in an oil-rich country that despite having the world's largest proven reserves is grappling with basic goods shortages and rampant inflation.

And less than 24 hours after Maduro made a rare and open offer to US President Barack Obama of talks to end more than a decade of enmity, there appeared no prospect of a rapprochement after Secretary of State John Kerry hit out at the Venezuelan government's handling of the protests.

Heeding the call of opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who narrowly lost to Maduro in the election to succeed Chavez last year, at least 50,000 anti-government protesters streamed into several avenues in the Caracas neighbourhood of Sucre

With some sporting Guy Fawkes masks or faces painted in the colours of the Venezuelan flag, they demanded the disarming of groups accused of intimidating and even attacking demonstrators.

"The state should stop these paramilitary groups," said the head of the main opposition coalition, Ramon Guillermo Aveledo. "It is unacceptable that there are armed groups that are out of control."

Others accused Maduro and late leader Chavez for allowing the economy to tailspin and for failing to tackle street crime and corruption.

"I can't stand the situation. It's not fair that we're in one of the richest countries in the world and still can't get food," 24-year-old student Joel Moreno told AFP.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of pro-government supporters, clutching flowers and dressed in red and white, gathered in the centre of the capital, a government stronghold.

Some of Maduro's backers, draped in the national flag, denounced the student protests.

"Venezuela is a country of peace and they can't come here and try to change what it is," Josefina Lisset said.

"Why are these students coming here? We hope that everything goes back to normal. They should let this president rule, he was elected democratically," the 54-year-old added.

While the rival camps spilled onto the streets in different parts of the capital, security was heavy amid fears further clashes could erupt if they collided.

As the rallies got under way, medics announced that a 23-year-old woman shot in the face three days ago in the northern city of Valencia had died of her wounds, raising the official death toll linked to the unrest from nine to 10.

The protests - which kicked off in the western city of San Cristobal led by students angry over the soaring crime rate - have increasingly been accompanied by violence and attempts to intimidate protesters.

In the western state of Tachira, student leader Gaby Arellano alleged that groups on motorbikes fired on people protesting by banging on pots at their windows. In Caracas, AFP journalists have in recent days also seen men on pick-up trucks escorted by motorbikes intimidating protesters.

Early on Saturday, Maduro said remarks by US Secretary of State Kerry hours earlier on the unrest gave violent groups a "green light" to carry out attacks, slamming the top American diplomat's words as "arrogant" and "insolent."

Maduro, who denies any links to armed groups, maintains that the protests are part of a "coup d'etat in development" instigated by Washington and conservative ex-Colombian president Alvaro Uribe.

Kerry had condemned Venezuela's "unacceptable" use of force against anti-government protesters, and declined to respond to a call from Caracas for bilateral talks.

"The government's use of force and judicial intimidation against citizens and political figures, who are exercising a legitimate right to protest, is unacceptable and will only increase the likelihood of violence," he said in a statement.

Maduro's testy response came a day after he challenged Obama to meet him for talks and offered to return an ambassador to Washington.

Venezuela and the United States have not exchanged ambassadors since their respective envoys were withdrawn in 2010. Venezuela has expelled eight US diplomats over the past year, including three on February 16.

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