Published Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014 | 10:47 a.m.
Updated Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014 | 10:47 a.m.
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Thousands of Venezuelans opposed to President Nicolas Maduro took to the streets in Caracas in a show of force following two weeks of sometimes violent anti-government protests that have swept across the country.
The protest, organized by students and hardliner members of the opposition, was the biggest faced by President Nicolas Maduro since he was elected nearly a year ago following the death of his mentor Hugo Chavez. 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?"
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 on Wednesday in other cities, including Merida and San Cristobal, where students have clashed with police in recent days.
Merida's Mayor Carlos Garcia told the AP that three people were injured by gunfire in protests Tuesday after a group of hooded government supporters began firing into the crowd. Maduro on Wednesday acknowledged the incident, but told supporters that those responding to the opposition's violent provocations aren't true revolutionaries.
Human rights groups on Tuesday denounced a government crackdown on peaceful protests, which has led to the arrest of 13 anti-government activists in the past two weeks on anti-terrorism charges.
Follow Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APjoshgoodman AP writers Fabiola Sanchez and Jorge Rueda contributed to this report.