Feb 18, 2014 11:42 AM by AP
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - Security forces closed off access to a plaza where anti-government demonstrators were set to rally behind fugitive opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez in a tense standoff with pro-government forces who have organized their own march.
The competing demonstrations loomed one day after President Nicolas Maduro's government gave three U.S. Embassy officials 48 hours to leave the country, claiming they were supporting what he says are opposition plots to topple his socialist administration. The U.S. denied that.
Supporters of Lopez, who is Maduro's most vociferous foe and the target of an arrest order, rerouted their protest march away from the central plaza in Caracas where pro-government oil workers planned their own demonstration.
Still, a police picket four rows deep and led by a group of women blocked access to the plaza in eastern Caracas on Tuesday where they were scheduled to gather. Nearby subway stations were also closed, leading organizers to appeal to neighbors to open their Wi-Fi networks so protesters can communicate to regroup.
Crowds of demonstrators gathered just outside the ring of police.
Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Assembly, said that even if the opponents had the backing of the U.S. Marines, under no circumstances would they be allowed to enter the government stronghold of downtown Caracas.
The Venezuelan government accuses the Obama administration of siding with student protesters it has blamed for violence that led to three deaths last week. Maduro claims the U.S. is trying to stir up unrest to regain dominance of South America's largest oil producer.
In Washington, the State Department said allegations that the U.S. is helping to organize protests are "baseless and false" and called on Venezuela's government to engage the opposition in "meaningful dialogue."
Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said Monday that the three senior U.S. consular officers are being expelled because they tried to infiltrate Venezuelan universities under the cover of doing visa outreach. Maduro has expelled American diplomats twice before.
The State Department said Monday it hadn't received any formal notification of the expulsions of the three senior officials, who Jaua said were all second secretaries.
Hundreds of students have spent the past week in the streets of Caracas alternating between peaceful protests by day and pitched battles with police at night in unrest fed by hardships that include rampant crime, 56 percent inflation and shortages of basic goods.
Three people were killed in clashes Wednesday - two students and a pro-government demonstrator. News videos and photographs taken at the time indicate at least one of the students was killed when pro-government militia members fired directly into a crowd of protesters.
On Monday, a fourth victim, a 17-year-old boy, was killed when an unidentified vehicle accelerated into a group of student protesters in the state of Sucre.
In Caracas, a crowd of anti-government activists wrested a handcuffed opposition politician away from security forces following a raid on the headquarters of Lopez's Popular Will party.
Surrounded by journalists and party activists, national guardsmen hustled a handcuffed Dario Ramirez out of a shopping mall, but once outside, dozens of activists banging pots and pans in protest swarmed over the squad, pulling the city councilman to freedom and speeding him away on a motorcycle.
Lopez also was being sought by authorities on an arrest order stemming from last week's violence, listing charges from homicide to vandalism of public property. Maduro accuses Lopez of being behind the violence and leading a "fascist" plot to overthrow him.
Lopez said Sunday that he didn't fear going to jail to defend his beliefs and called on supporters to march with him on Tuesday to the Interior Ministry, where he planned to deliver a petition demanding protection for protesting citizens.
"I haven't committed any crime," Lopez said in a video. "If there is a decision to legally throw me in jail I'll submit myself to this persecution."
Evelyn Montes, a 30-year-old medical student, said that if Lopez is arrested it will make plain to many Venezuelans and the world what she considers Maduro's authoritarian bent.
"People are scared," said Montes as a group of several protesters began to gather in eastern Caracas Tuesday. "This will open their eyes."