The Venezuelan government and opposition traded accusations on Friday over the evacuation of some 50 children from a Caracas hospital following an attack at the maternity ward.
The government blamed the attack on armed gangs, while the opposition attributed it to tear gas used to quell unrest that saw protests and looting continue into the night following another day of clashes between police and demonstrators in the capital.
“I denounce before the international community that armed gangs hired by the opposition attacked a maternity hospital with 54 children,” Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez tweeted, noting that President Nicolas Maduro had ordered the hospital’s evacuation.
But Freddy Guevara, an opposition leader, rejected the allegation, calling Rodriguez “irresponsible” and saying the evacuations were “the fault of tear gas bombs of your dictatorship.”
The opposition accuses Maduro of letting state forces and gangs of armed thugs violently repress demonstrators.
Demonstrators have vowed not to flinch in their campaign to oust Maduro, despite three weeks of protest violence that has 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 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.
Earlier Thursday police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to break up thousands of marchers as they reached a vital freeway in Caracas, then edged back slightly as masked protesters pelted them with stones and Molotov cocktails.
Clashes also broke out in the flashpoint western city of San Cristobal, Maracaibo in the northwest and Valencia in central Venezuela.
The opposition’s leadership called for further protests in communities across Venezuela on Friday, a white-clad “silent” march in Caracas on Saturday to commemorate the eight people killed during unrest this month, and a nationwide “sit-in” blocking Venezuela’s main roads on Monday.
Protesters blame Maduro — 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.
Maduro says the protests seeking to oust him are backed by the United States.
On Thursday, Maduro said the opposition was ready to begin a political dialogue, which his opponents denied.
“Today they responded in four different ways that they were ready to begin talks,” the president said at an official event.
But the opposition stood firm that the only dialogue possible would be on calling elections.
Henrique Capriles, the former opposition presidential candidate, posted a message on Twitter calling Maduro a “dictator” and a “mythomaniac.”
“No one believes him, however, about dialogue, which the Venezuelans will do with their VOTE!” Capriles tweeted.
Pressure on 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 Maduro and his allies.
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 neighborhood in western Caracas, looters carted off food and beer from a series of ransacked businesses, residents said.
In poor neighborhoods traditionally loyal to Maduro, some protesters have cited hunger as their reason for joining calls for his ouster.