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Venezuela leader vows city won't turn into a Benghazi

| Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014, 8:00 p.m.
REUTERS
Demonstrators rally around a monument of a tank which they dragged into the street during a protest against Nicolas Maduro’s government in San Cristobal, about 410 miles southwest of the capital of Caracas, on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014.
REUTERS
Relatives of Genesis Carmona, 22, who was shot during a protest against Nicolas Maduro’s government on Tuesday, mourns during her wake in Valencia on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2013.

CARACAS — Venezuelan security forces and demonstrators faced off in streets blocked by burning barricades in several provincial cities on Thursday as protests escalated against President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government.

At least five people have died since the violence broke out last week, the most serious unrest since Maduro was narrowly elected in April 2013. There have been scores of injuries and arrests.

The protesters, mostly students, want Maduro to resign and blame his government for violent crime, high inflation, product shortages and alleged repression of opponents.

Thursday's most serious unrest was in the western Andean states of Tachira and Merida, which have been especially volatile since hardline opposition leaders called supporters onto the streets in early February demanding Maduro's departure.

In the city of San Cristobal, which some residents are describing as a “war zone,” many businesses remained shut as students and police faced off again. The government says it is taking “special measures” to restore order in Tachira.

“This is not a militarization,” Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres said on state TV from San Cristobal. “We are here to work for the great majority of people in Tachira. ... Before we have dialogue, we must have order.”

Maduro said he will not let his rivals turn Tachira into “a Benghazi,” referring to the violence-wracked Libyan city.

Wednesday was one of the worst bouts of violence the capital, Caracas, has experienced during nearly three weeks of unrest.

Around a square in the wealthier east of the city, security forces fired tear gas and bullets, chasing youths who hurled Molotov cocktails and blocked roads with burning piles of trash.

“I declare myself in civil disobedience,” read one banner held up by demonstrators on a city road.

Caracas was much calmer during the day, though a few hundred opposition demonstrators gathered again at dusk in the same square, Plaza Altamira. Some businesses stayed closed in a further drag on the ailing economy.

The government said a funeral parade for deceased folk singer Simon Diaz, a beloved figure who died on Wednesday at age 85, was held up because of “violent groups” blocking roads.

Tensions have escalated since opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, a 42-year-old Harvard-educated economist, turned himself in to troops this week. He is being held in Caracas' Ramo Verde military jail on charges of fomenting the violence.

“Change depends on every one of us. Don't give up!” Lopez's wife, Lilian Tintori, said on Twitter.

Local TV channels are providing almost no live coverage of the unrest, so Venezuelans are turning to social media to swap information and images, though falsified photos are circulating.

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