Venezuela orders arrest for leader of the opposition

President says he is part of U.S.-backed regime-change plot

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CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said Saturday that a police manhunt was underway for Leopoldo Lopez, the hard-line opposition leader behind anti-government demonstrations that ended with three deaths.

The socialist president's announcement came while pro-government and student-led opposition demonstrations were held in different parts of the capital, Caracas.

Lopez "ordered all these violent kids, which he trained, to destroy the prosecutor's office and half of Caracas and then goes into hiding," Maduro told thousands of supporters at a rally to denounce what he called a U.S.-backed, "fascist" plot to oust him from power. "Turn yourself in, coward."

U.S. officials have denied plotting to oust Maduro, and on Saturday, Secretary of State John Kerry expressed concern over the rising tensions and violence surrounding the protests.

"We are particularly alarmed by reports that the Venezuelan government has arrested or detained scores of anti-government protesters and issued an arrest warrant for opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez," Kerry said. "These actions have a chilling effect on citizens' rights to express their grievances peacefully."

Maduro said security forces, acting on a Feb. 12 arrest order, are now looking for Lopez, who hasn't been seen since a Wednesday night press conference in which he vowed that anti-government street protests would continue.

Venezuela's president didn't mention Lopez by name, referring to him only by a frequently-used disparaging nickname, The Throne, to denote what he considers the Harvard-trained politician's haughty political ambitions.

Aides to Lopez denied he's ducking arrest and say he remains in the country. His lawyers, who've been unable to gain access to the alleged arrest order, have urged him to refrain from making public statements until it materializes.

In an apparent bid to dampen anti-government demonstrations, which have been held off-and-on since Wednesday, Maduro said he had ordered the suspension of metro and bus service in the Chacao area of the capital where the protests are centered.

"We can't have a moment of weakness, because we are trying to defeat a fascist movement that wants to end the country we have," said Maduro, whose government has been struggling with shortages and high inflation.

In eastern Caracas, meanwhile, hundreds of university students protested to demand justice for two students killed during Wednesday's demonstration, when protesters clashed with police and pro-government militia members.

Venezuelan forces later used tear gas to clear them from the main road through the capital. The mayor of Chacao, where the protest took place, said the students were walking "peacefully toward the highway … when they were repelled by tear gas."

The students responded by throwing rocks at police. There were no reports of serious injuries.

"We are not going to give in or kneel. We are going to continue in the streets, fighting for Venezuelans and the youths who want a democratic country, with free media, … with justice and equity," said Juan Requesen, a student leader at the Universidad Central de Venezuela.