Marchers, mayors defy Venezuelan government

Death toll hits 24; shortages of food, inflation fuel unrest

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CARACAS, Venezuela — Government forces used water cannons and tear gas Wednesday to turn back opposition marches in the capital, where borough mayors defied a Supreme Court order that they clear street barricades.Clouds of gas hovered near the entrance to the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas and at the adjoining Botanical Garden, where protesters had converged to join a march headed to the public defender's office.

"It was horrible. I had to run a long way," said Maria Alfonzo, a 22-year-old science student who was leaving the campus when she was overcome by the gas. "The National Guard is supposed to protect us, not threaten and mistreat us. We should have the right to protest."

Meanwhile, the death toll from more than a month of often violent demonstrations against the government of President Nicolas Maduro rose to 24 Wednesday after Jesus Enrique Acosta, 23, was reported killed by a gunshot to the head in the La Isabelica barrio of Valencia, about 75 miles southwest of the capital. Six others were reported wounded by gunfire in the northern industrial city.

Witnesses said Acosta, an engineering student at the University of Carabobo, was shot by a member of the "colectivos," motorcycle-riding vigilantes that have been blamed for other killings across Venezuela since the anti-Maduro protests erupted Feb. 12.

Maria Corina Machado, an opposition deputy in the National Assembly who led protests against high crime, inflation and scarcity of food and other staples, had called for students and other Maduro opponents to march from Plaza Venezuela to the public defender's office to demand the release of students and others detained over the last month.

Supporters of the government marched to the same area, without interference from authorities, according to reporters on the scene.

The showdown with police was consistent with a government policy to restrict protest marches, often with the help of vigilantes. National Guard members in riot gear blocked a march Monday by doctors and other health workers protesting the lack of medical supplies in city hospitals.

Violence has continued to roil Venezuela this week, despite Maduro's call last month for a peace conference to reconcile the deeply polarized sides.

On Tuesday, opposition groups in Valencia reported 12 people were injured in clashes with police, while at least 16 were injured in the western city of Merida. Also on Tuesday, local officials reported the death of 24-year-old Daniel Tinoco, a student in San Cristobal, the capital of southwestern Tachira state, the scene of some of the most violent protests.