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New Venezuela protest clashes follow deadly unrest
[CARACAS] New clashes erupted Thursday between Venezuelan riot police and President Nicolas Maduro's opponents, inflaming the tension after a day of deadly unrest in the beleaguered oil-rich nation.
Police backed by armored trucks fired tear gas and rubber bullets to break up a large march as it reached a vital freeway in Caracas, then edged back slightly as masked protesters pelted them with stones and Molotov cocktails.
Demonstrators vowed not to flinch in their campaign to oust Mr Maduro, despite three weeks of protest violence that have left eight people dead, including three on Wednesday.
"Sure we're tired, but we've got to stand strong. I'm ready to take to the streets every day if I have to," said 22-year-old student protester Aquiles Aldazoro.
Protesters set fire to trash bins and tore down a billboard to barricade themselves in, as officers fired water cannon at them and a police helicopter hovered overhead.
"I don't care if I inhale gas, I don't care if I die. We have to put a stop to this murdering, repressing government," said Natasha Borges, 17.
Protesters blame Mr Maduro - the heir of the leftist "Bolivarian revolution" launched by the late Hugo Chavez in 1999 - for an economic crisis marked by severe shortages of food, medicine and basic goods.
Pressure on Mr Maduro has been mounting since 2014, as falling prices for Venezuela's crucial oil exports have sent the once-booming economy into a tailspin.
The crisis has escalated since March 30, when Venezuela's Supreme Court moved to seize the powers of the legislature, the only lever of state authority not controlled by Mr Maduro and his allies.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters took part in Wednesday's marches, which erupted into clashes with security forces and armed groups of government supporters.
A 17-year-old boy and a 23-year-old woman died after they were shot in the head by masked gunmen. Mr Maduro's camp said a soldier outside Caracas was also killed.
The opposition accuses Mr Maduro of letting state forces and gangs of armed thugs violently repress demonstrators.
Interior Minister Nestor Reverol said one person had been arrested for the soldier's death, which he called a pre-meditated "act of terror".
Numerous businesses and universities remained closed - some in tacit support of the protests, others for fear of a repeat of the previous day's violence.
Looting erupted amid the chaos Wednesday. In the Paradise neighbourhood in western Caracas, looters carted off food and beer from a series of ransacked businesses, residents said.
In poor neighbourhoods traditionally loyal to Mr Maduro, some protesters have cited hunger as their reason for joining calls for his ouster.
The escalation of Venezuela's political crisis since late March has galvanised the often divided opposition in its efforts to force Mr Maduro from power.
The president, in turn, has urged his supporters, the military and civilian militias to defend the "revolution".
International concern meanwhile continues to mount.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Thursday urged all sides in Venezuela to make "concrete gestures" to ease the tension.
The European Union called the deaths of protesters "highly regrettable" and urged all sides to "de-escalate".
The opposition has called for the military - a pillar of Mr Maduro's power - to abandon him.
But the defense minister, General Vladimir Padrino Lopez, has pledged the army's "unconditional loyalty". The president accuses the opposition of inciting a "coup" backed by the United States.
According to a survey by pollster Venebarometro, seven in 10 Venezuelans disapprove of Mr Maduro, whose term does not end until 2019.
The president said Wednesday that he is ready to face his opponents at the ballot box.
"I want to have elections soon... to seek a peaceful path so the revolution can put the conspirators, murderers and interventionist right-wingers in their place," he told a rally of supporters in central Caracas.
Regional elections due in December were indefinitely postponed and there is still no date for local polls due this year. The next presidential election is due in December 2018.