Venezuela threatens to cut off fuel to protest areas
A man walks past a barricade set up by anti-government demonstrators in Caracas, on Feb. 21, 2014 [AFP]

Venezuela's leftist government Friday threatened to cut off gasoline supplies to areas hit by opposition protests that have spiraled into the biggest challenge to Nicolas Maduro since he became president last year.

"We will be obliged to suspend the supply of fuel to areas under fascist siege in order to preserve the security of all," Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez warned on Twitter, in the latest move to squelch more than two weeks of growing anti-government demonstrations.

Ramirez, who also heads the state oil company, provided no precise details on when or where gasoline supplies could be withheld.

But such a measure would add another hardship for residents already struggling with shortages of basic necessities, soaring inflation and rampant crime -- grievances at the root of the escalating protests.

At least five people have been killed since the unrest started in the western state of Tachira in reaction to the attempted rape and robbery of a university student.

Maduro, who succeeded the late Hugo Chavez, has also threatened to suspend constitutional guarantees in Tachira and on Thursday his government said it was deploying a battalion of paratroopers to the state capital San Cristobal, near the border with Colombia.

The opposition is planning a major march in Caracas on Saturday to demand the disarming of pro-government civilian groups reportedly involved in attacks on demonstrators.

The government has called for a rival rally by "Chavista women" at the same time, the second time this week it has raised the specter of clashes between the two sides.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]