Published Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014 | 2:29 p.m.
Updated Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014 | 2:30 p.m.
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — At least two people were killed Wednesday as the largest protests ever against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's year-old government turned violent.
Gunfire erupted in downtown Caracas when armed members of a pro-government vigilante group arrived on motorcycles and began firing at more than 100 anti-Maduro student protesters clashing with security forces.
As the crowd fled in panic, one demonstrator fell to the ground with a bullet wound in his head. Onlookers screamed "assassins" as they rushed the 24-year-old student, later identified by family members as Bazil D'Acosta, to a police vehicle.
Also killed was the leader of a pro-government 23rd of January collective, as militant supporters of Venezuela's socialist administration call themselves. National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello said the "revolutionary" known by his nickname Juancho was "vilely assassinated by the fascists" but he didn't provide details.
The unrest erupted after a day of peaceful demonstrations organized by students and hard-line members of the opposition.
Pro-government supporters countered with a march of their own to express support for Maduro, who has accused opponents of trying to violently oust him from power just two months after his party's candidates prevailed by a landslide in mayoral elections.
While anti-government demonstrators vented frustration over issues ranging from rampant crime to mounting economic hardships, they were united in their resolve to force Maduro out of office by constitutional means.
"All of these problems — shortages, inflation, insecurity, the lack of opportunities — have a single culprit: the government," Leopoldo Lopez, a Harvard University-trained former mayor, told a crowd of about 10,000 people gathered at Plaza Venezuela in Caracas.
Lopez, who leads a faction of the opposition that has challenged what it considers the meek leadership of two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, called the protests "a moral and patriotic duty."
"If we don't do it now, then when? And if it's not us, who will?" he said.
The crowd then marched to the prosecutor's office to demand the release of 13 demonstrators who human rights groups say were illegally arrested during the past two weeks of increasingly violent protests.
A smaller group of mostly students lingered after most demonstrators went home, setting fire to trash and ripping apart concrete sidewalks and steel grating to throw at police and national guardsmen.
Across town, Maduro told his supporters that he won't back down in the face of what he said is a conspiracy by opponents to provoke violence and destabilize his government.
"A Nazi-fascist faction has emerged that wants to take Venezuela down the path of violence," the 51-year-old former bus driver said. "What we're going to have is peace and prosperity."
Protests also took place in other cities, including Merida and San Cristobal, where students clashed with police in recent days.
Merida Mayor Carlos Garcia said three people were injured by gunfire during protests Tuesday when a group of hooded government supporters began firing into the crowd. Maduro on Wednesday acknowledged the incident, but said his supporters shouldn't respond in kind to what he called the opposition's violent provocations.
Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez and Joshua Goodman contributed to this report.