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April 18, 2014

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Venezuela protest leader unseen amid arrest rumors

Updated Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014 | 2:10 p.m.

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A hard-line leader of Venezuela's opposition dropped out of sight amid media reports Thursday that an arrest order had been issued charging he incited violence at anti-government protests that resulted in three deaths.

Leopoldo Lopez was last heard from Wednesday night at a news conference where he vowed that demonstrations against President Nicolas Maduro's 10-month-old government would continue.

Allies dismissed any notion the Harvard-educated former mayor was lying low. They said Lopez was at his home in Caracas trying to verify the authenticity of a judge's order that purportedly authorizes his arrest on charges including conspiracy, murder and terrorism. A leaked copy of the order was published in the newspaper El Universal.

Lopez's backers also denounced an attempt by armed military intelligence officers to search the offices of his Popular Will party Thursday, calling it an effort to intimidate members. Lawyers for the party turned the officers away because they didn't have a warrant.

Chief federal prosecutor Luisa Ortega made no mention of an arrest order for Lopez in statements to the media Thursday, although several Cabinet officials denounced him as the "mastermind" of what they called a strategy to replicate the unrest that preceded the 2002 coup that briefly removed President Hugo Chavez from power.

Amid swirling rumors of an impending crackdown on dissent, Venezuela's two political camps traded blame for violent clashes Wednesday that began when a group of pro-Maduro vigilantes roared up on motorcycles and fired guns at a small crowd of demonstrators who had been sparring with police.

Some 200 students held a peaceful sit-in vigil in a Caracas plaza Thursday demanding justice for 24-year-old Bassil Da Costa, who was killed during the mayhem with a bullet wound to the head.

Cabinet officials accused Lopez and a "fascist" conspiracy with links to right-wing elements in the U.S. with trying to destabilize the country and oust Maduro from power two months after his party's candidates prevailed by a landslide in mayoral elections.

In Washington, the U.S. State Department denied it had any involvement in Venezuela's politics.

Lopez's allies blamed the blamed the violence on the government. They charged that security forces acting on the president's orders stood by while pro-government militia members attacked the small group of student protesters, who lingered downtown after thousands of other Maduro opponents went home after a demonstration.

Lopez, the leader of a splinter faction of the opposition alliance challenging what he considers the meek leadership of two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, has vowed to remain on the streets.

But analysts and even some members of the opposition question whether that strategy, known as "The Exit," for the hashtag used on social media to mobilize the more than 10,000 people who turned out for Wednesday's protest, could end up strengthening Maduro's hand and undermine two years of steady electoral gains by the opposition.

While Venezuela's economy is sinking deeper every day, the moment hasn't arrived for a Ukraine-like standoff on the streets, said Carlos Romero, a political analyst at the Central University of Venezuela.

Maduro has done a skillful job winning the loyalty of the military, traditionally the arbiter of political disputes in Venezuela, and foreign governments are loathe to exert too much pressure on the president, Romero said.

At the same time, after a string of exhausting elections following Chavez's death last March, most Venezuelans are focused on the more immediate task of putting food on the table amid record shortages, 56 percent inflation and a weakening currency.

"The Venezuelan people want peace and stability right now, not political war," said Romero, who is an adviser to the opposition alliance. "The middle class that took to the streets are the same ones who've always supported the opposition. They aren't the ones who will deliver regime change."

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Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez, Ricardo Nunes and Jorge Rueda contributed to this report.