Protests over Venezuela’s disputed election to succeed the late Hugo Chavez have so far left seven people dead and dozens injured, as president-elect Nicolas Maduro and his rival traded blame Tuesday.
The political crisis in the oil-rich country deepened as protests swept parts of Caracas and other Venezuelan cities for a second day following a weekend election which electoral authorities say was won narrowly by Maduro.
Repeated demands by opposition leader Henrique Capriles for a recount — which had the backing of the United States and the Organization of American States — have been rejected, setting the two sides on a collision course.
By Tuesday morning, government officials were reporting seven deaths, 61 injured and 135 arrested around the country.
Maduro, blaming “fascist mobs” for the violence and reiterating charges that the opposition was fomenting a coup, said he would not allow his foes to go ahead with a planned protest march Wednesday through the streets of Caracas.
“You are not going to the center of Caracas to fill it with death and blood,” the 50-year-old said in a nationally televised statement, while calling his own supporters into the streets.
“I’m not going to allow it. I’m going to use a hard fist against fascism and intolerance. If they want to overthrow me, come get me. With the people and the armed forces, I am here,” he said.
The 40-year-old Capriles shot back on his Twitter account, blaming Maduro and his government for the violence.
“The illegitimate one and his government ordered that there be violence to avoid a vote count! They are the ones responsible,” he said.
Tensions have soared since the National Electoral Council — dominated by Chavistas — proclaimed Maduro the victor by a narrow 50.75 percent to 49 percent margin in the snap election to replace Chavez.
Capriles urged his supporters to march peacefully on the council’s multiple regional offices, and Maduro — who had been acting president following Chavez’s death last month — ordered his backers to mobilize as well.
Groups of Chavistas, dressed in red and carrying Venezuelan flags, gathered Tuesday at various points in the states of Zulia, Anzoategui, Carabobo and Apure in a show of strength after a night of pot-banging and street protests by the opposition.
“Don’t continue provoking these people — a counter-offensive by these people could be tremendous,” warned ruling party deputy William Soto Rojas.
Images broadcast by state television VTV on Tuesday showed burned-out cars in Barinas state.
Thousands of anti-government protesters on Monday took to the streets of Chacao, an opposition stronghold in eastern Caracas, painting walls with the message: “Fraud, they robbed our vote.”
In one incident, a 45-year-old man was shot dead Monday night in the Caracas suburb of Baruta while demonstrating in support of Maduro, Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said, with a 44-year-old woman also wounded.
“They were shouting slogans in favor of President Nicolas Maduro’s victory, when an opposition caravan passed by and shots were fired,” said Jaua, who also accused the opposition of engaging in “fascist violence.”
Government officials charged that groups of opposition protesters, some on motorcycles, massed outside the home of the electoral council president Tibisay Lucena, and attacked offices of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela.
The official VTV television and Telesur, a Latin American television network financed in part by Venezuela, said protesters also gathered outside the party’s Caracas headquarters in what they described as “provocative” and “aggressive” displays.
“We should calm down,” Arlynn Rojas, 21, told AFP. “What they are doing is calling for a confrontation, instead of looking for peace. The country is very divided, there is a lot of anger, resentment and this is very dangerous.”
In proclaiming Maduro president, Lucena defended the vote as transparent and called on the opposition to pursue their complaints through legal channels, and not through threats.
“At some point this is going to have to stop,” said analyst Ignacio Avalos.
“It will be assumed that the president is Maduro, it will be thought he has a somewhat weak base of legitimacy. But Maduro has to begin governing and to make gestures that diminish the illegitimacy the opposition attributes to him.”
Maduro is due to take office on Friday to complete Chavez’s six-year term, which began January 10.