CARACAS, Venezuela – Fears of more clashes between pro- and anti-government supporters ratcheted up in Venezuela as both sides prepared to march in the capital Tuesday and opposition leader Leonardo Lopez dared authorities to arrest him when he reappears in public.
The competing demonstrations loomed one day after President Nicolas Maduro's government gave three U.S. Embassy officials 48 hours to leave the country, claiming they were supporting what he says are opposition plots to topple his socialist administration. The U.S. denied that.
Supporters of Lopez, who is Maduro's most vociferous foe and the target of an arrest order, rerouted their protest march away from the central plaza in Caracas where pro-government oil workers planned their own demonstration.
Still, security forces on Tuesday morning blocked access to the plaza in eastern Caracas where opponents of Maduro were scheduled to gather.
A contingent of police four row deeps, led by women in the first row, closed off the main access to the plaza. Nearby subway stations were also closed.
The Venezuelan government accuses the Obama administration of siding with student protesters it has blamed for violence that led to three deaths last week. Maduro claims the U.S. is trying to stir up unrest to regain dominance of South America's largest oil producer.
In Washington, the State Department said allegations that the U.S. is helping to organize protests are "baseless and false" and called on Venezuela's government to engage the opposition in "meaningful dialogue."
Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said Monday that the three senior U.S. consular officers are being expelled because they tried to infiltrate Venezuelan universities under the cover of doing visa outreach. Maduro has expelled American diplomats twice before.
The State Department said Monday it hadn't received any formal notification of the expulsions of the three senior officials, who Jaua said were all second secretaries.
Hundreds of students have spent the past week in the streets of Caracas alternating between peaceful protests by day and pitched battles with police at night in unrest fed by hardships that include rampant crime, 56 percent inflation and shortages of basic goods.
Three people were killed in clashes Wednesday — two students and a pro-government demonstrator. News videos and photographs taken at the time indicate at least one of the students was killed when pro-government militia members fired directly into a crowd of protesters.
On Monday they marched to Venezuela's telecommunications regulator to demand it lift all restrictions on the news media's coverage of the unfolding political crisis. Police repelled the activists with tear gas and rubber bullets, but there were no reports of serious injuries.
Later Monday, a crowd of anti-government activists wrested a handcuffed opposition politician away from security forces following a raid on the headquarters of Lopez's Popular Will party.
Surrounded by journalists and party activists in a shopping mall where the arrest was made, national guardsmen hustled a handcuffed Dario Ramirez frantically looking for an escape route. Once outside, dozens of activists banging pots and pans in protest swarmed over the squad, pulling the city councilman to freedom and speeding him away on a motorcycle.
Lopez also was being sought by authorities on an arrest order stemming from last week's violence, listing charges from homicide to vandalism of public property. Maduro accuses Lopez of being behind the violence and leading a "fascist" plot to overthrow him.
Lopez said Sunday that he didn't fear going to jail to defend his beliefs and called on supporters to march with him on Tuesday to the Interior Ministry, where he planned to deliver a petition demanding protection for protesting citizens.
"I haven't committed any crime," Lopez said in a video. "If there is a decision to legally throw me in jail I'll submit myself to this persecution."