Venezuelan officials break up protesters’ camps

CARACAS, Venezuela — Hundreds of security forces broke up four makeshift camps maintained by student protesters, arresting 243 people Thursday in a pre-dawn raid.

The tent cities were installed over a month ago in front of the offices of the United Nations and better-off neighborhoods in the capital to protest against President Nicolas Maduro’s government.

Venezuela’s Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres presented homemade mortars, guns and Molotov cocktails that he said were seized at the camps and used to carry out “terrorist” acts against security forces.

“This shows there was an entire logistical apparatus in place,” Rodriguez Torres, refuting claims the movement was peaceful and spontaneous, said at a press conference outside the detention center where the students were being held. He added than an “impressive” amount of drugs were also found, and with the cameras rolling even performed a test to determine the purity of cocaine he said was confiscated.

The dismantling of the camps was announced just hours before top opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who’s been in custody since February, was scheduled to appear in court. The hearing on whether he should begin trial on charges of inciting violence at anti-government protests was suspended and Lopez returned to a military prison almost as soon as he arrived to the courthouse downtown.

The latest clashes also came as the U.S. Congress began debate Thursday on economic sanctions against top Venezuelan officials.

But the Obama administration argued at a Senate committee hearing that sanctions are premature while dialogue is ongoing between Maduro’s government and some members of the opposition.

Roberta Jacobson, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, said some opposition leaders have urged the Obama administration not to go forward with sanctions.

“They have asked us not to pursue them at this time,” Jacobson said.

The legislation in both chambers is relatively modest. It centers on banning visas for Venezuelan officials who crushed anti-government protests and freezes their assets. It would also boost aid for pro-democracy and civil society groups.

Sen. Bob Menendez, the foreign relations committee chairman who introduced the legislation, said he would like to hear directly from leaders who oppose the sanctions. Anti-government groups are divided on how much to engage with the government, with students and hardliners boycotting the crisis talks which they consider a political stunt by Maduro to deflect foreign criticism of his handling of the crisis.

The South American country has been roiled since February by demonstrations that have killed 41 people on all sides, and left another 785 injured. At least 2,200 people have been arrested in connection with the protests over the last few months.

Maduro’s administration has grown increasingly fed up with the demonstrations and last week announced that it had arrested 58 foreigners, including an American, on suspicion of inciting violent street protests against the government.

Opponents have repeatedly rejected Maduro’s frequent allegations that the protests are seeking his overthrow, calling them an effort to distract attention from grueling economic crisis marked by 57 percent inflation and record shortages.

Witnesses near the UN office said hundreds of National Guardsmen began arriving after 3 a.m. and were greeted angrily by neighbors who launched objects and insults from nearby balconies.

Rodriguez Torres said the operation was carried out cleanly, with security forces relying on the element of surprise rather than aggressive force to round up the protesters.

Hours later, a scattered detritus of shoes, clothes and destroyed banners littered the streets where the makeshift campground once stood. A few dozen neighbors built barricades to block traffic, demanding the release of the students who Rodriguez Torres said would be charged in the coming hours.

“How can this be allowed when the constitution guarantees the right to peaceful protest,” said Anais Serrano, a real estate agent. “These kids weren’t anything bad.”

In Washington, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a sponsor of the sanctions legislation in the Senate, said the message that penalties would carry is important. The move comes as human rights groups accuse Venezuelan security officials of arresting, torturing and even killing unarmed demonstrators.

“This is happening in our very own hemisphere,” Rubio said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. He said sanctions should target anyone responsible for human rights violations, refusing to rule out Maduro as a potential target.

Action now would show the U.S. is “firmly on the side of the democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people,” Rubio said.

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