Fresh clashes in Venezuela after deadly unrest

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Demonstrators block a street during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas on April 20, 2017. (AFP)
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Demonstrators clash with the riot police during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas on April 20, 2017. (AFP)
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Demonstrators clash with the riot police during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas on April 20, 2017. (AFP)
Updated 21 April 2017
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Fresh clashes in Venezuela after deadly unrest

CARACAS: Venezuelan riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets for a second day on Thursday to break up protests by President Nicolas Maduro’s opponents, further inflaming tensions after Wednesday’s deadly unrest.
The clashes erupted as police in the beleaguered oil-rich nation tried to break up thousands of marchers as they reached a vital Caracas freeway, edging back slightly as masked protesters pelted them with stones and Molotov cocktails.
Demonstrators vowed not to flinch in their campaign to oust Maduro, despite three weeks of violent protest that has seen eight people killed, three of them on Wednesday.
“Sure we’re tired, but we’ve got to stand strong. I’m ready to take to the streets every day if I have to,” said 22-year-old student Aquiles Aldazoro.
Protesters set fire to trash bins and tore down a billboard to use as a barricade as officers fired water cannon at them and a police helicopter hovered overhead.
“I don’t care if I inhale gas, I don’t care if I die. We have to put a stop to this murdering, repressing government,” said Natasha Borges, 17.
One protester, completely naked except for sneakers, walked up to police and shouted: “Please, stop gas-bombing us.”
Another draped in a Venezuelan flag defiantly marched up to an armored truck and stared it down.
Clashes also broke out in the flashpoint western city of San Cristobal, Maracaibo in the north-west and Valencia in central Venezuela.
Late Thursday the government and opposition traded blows over events at a maternity hospital that prompted the evacuation of some 50 children.
The government said it was due to an attack by armed gangs, but the opposition blamed it on tear gas used to quell unrest.
The opposition called for new protests, a “march of silence” in all parts of the country on Saturday and a national road blockage on Monday.
Protesters blame Maduro — heir of the leftist “Bolivarian revolution” launched by the late Hugo Chavez in 1999 — for an economic crisis marked by severe shortages of food, medicine and basic goods.
Maduro says the protests seeking to oust him are supported by Washington.
On Thursday, Maduro said the opposition was ready to begin dialogue, but his opponents denied the claim, saying the only way forward would be to call new elections.
In a posting on Twitter, senior opposition leader Henrique Capriles slammed Maduro as a “dictator” and “mythomaniac.”
“No one believes him, however, about dialogue, which the Venezuelans will do with their VOTE!” he wrote.
Pressure on Maduro has been mounting since 2014, as falling prices for Venezuela’s crucial oil exports have sent the once-booming economy into a tailspin.
The crisis escalated after March 30 when the Supreme Court moved to seize the powers of the legislature, the only lever of state authority not controlled by Maduro and his allies.
Hundreds took part in Wednesday’s marches during which a 17-year-old teenager and a 23-year-old woman died after being shot in the head by masked gunmen.
Maduro’s camp said a soldier outside Caracas was also killed.
Looting also erupted with businesses ransacked in western Caracas and people carting off food and beer, residents said.
The opposition accuses Maduro of letting state forces and gangs of armed thugs violently repress demonstrators.
Interior Minister Nestor Reverol said one person had been arrested for the soldier’s death, and prosecutors say they are investigating the other two protest deaths.
The escalation of Venezuela’s political crisis has galvanized the often divided opposition in its efforts to force Maduro from power.
The president, in turn, has urged his supporters, the military and civilian militias to defend the “revolution.”
International concern over the situation is growing, with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Thursday urging all sides to make “concrete gestures” to ease the tension and the European Union urging the parties to “de-escalate” the conflict.
The opposition has urged the military — a pillar of Maduro’s power — to abandon him.
But Defense Minister General Vladimir Padrino Lopez has pledged the army’s “unconditional loyalty.”
Figures published by pollster Venebarometro show seven in 10 Venezuelans disapprove of Maduro, whose term does not end until 2019.
The president said Wednesday he was willing to face his opponents at the ballot box in order to put “interventionist right-wingers in their place.”
The next presidential election only due in December 2018.


Senior US Diplomat arrives in Pakistan amid frosty relations

Updated 30 min 57 sec ago
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Senior US Diplomat arrives in Pakistan amid frosty relations

  • The relationship between Pakistan and the United States is on a ‘slippery slope’ according to foreign-relations expert
  • Travel restrictions on diplomats likely to top the agenda

ISLAMABAD: Alice G. Wells, the US principal deputy assistant secretary for South and Central Asia, arrived in Islamabad on April 23 to continue talks amid strained relations between the two long-time allies.
The latest trip follows her visit from March 28 to April 3, during which she met several senior federal ministers, UN representatives, National Security Adviser Nasser Janjua, and Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. She also went to Karachi to meet provincial officials in Sindh.
When she arrived for this followup, she was greeted by Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua.
During the previous visit, discussions were held about Washington’s South Asia strategy, unveiled last year, “Pakistan’s stated commitment to eliminate all terrorist groups present within its borders,” and a “shared interest in building economic and commercial ties that benefit both nations” according to the US Embassy.
In the aftermath of the Tashkent conference on Afghanistan, Wells also noted the growing international consensus on the way forward to achieving peace in that country, and the meaningful role that Pakistan, partnering with the United States, could play in achieving that peaceful resolution.
Her latest visit is a follow-up to a series of clashes between the United States and Pakistan over growing differences that threaten decades-old relations between the countries.
The latest row erupted last week after Washington imposed “reciprocal” travel restrictions on Pakistani envoys in the US. After days of speculation, Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs last week confirmed that US authorities had informed it that from May 1, 2018, Pakistani diplomats would be restricted in how far they can travel within the United States without official permission.
Foreign-relations expert Qamar Cheema said that “relations are on a slippery slope” and the travel restrictions will probably take center stage in this week’s meetings between Wells and Pakistani officials.
Washington remains unhappy that its efforts to stabilize Afghanistan are being hindered by Islamabad’s feeble approach to dealing with the Haqqani network of insurgents, which the US says operates from Pakistan, an assertion Islamabad has rejected as it reiterates its commitment to combating all forms of terrorism, said Cheema.
“There are concerns on Pakistan’s long-term strategy to counter terror financing, stop the rise of ISIS recruits and its activity, and its assistance with talks and negotiations with the Taliban,” Cheema added.
The latest travel restrictions are in response to Islamabad’s already imposed curbs on US diplomats, which stems from a trust deficit and a number of damaging incidents. These include the US Navy SEAL raid of 2011 that killed Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, which was carried out without Pakistan’s prior knowledge.
The Trump administration had warned Pakistan of “punitive measures”. The United States Bureau of Industry and Security, which works under the Department of Commerce, has placed sanctions on seven Pakistani firms purportedly engaged in nuclear trade, a move that damaged Pakistan’s attempt to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
A move co-sponsored by the US in February, meanwhile, convinced the Financial Action Task Force to place Pakistan back on its “gray list” of “jurisdictions with deficient anti-money laundering regimes.”
In January, Trump accused Islamabad of taking billions from America and in return giving “nothing but lies and deceit,” and sheltering terrorists. The US withheld $255 million from about $1 billion in assistance. The same month, Washington placed Pakistan on its “special watch list for severe violations of religious freedom.”
“Relations are hanging by a single thread and could free-fall anytime,” Cheema said, but added that the continuation of constructive interaction from both sides at least shows “the belief that cooperation and engagement is the only way forward for peace in the region.”