CARACAS (AFP) - Police fired tear gas and made several arrests as 20,000 people marched Saturday in the Venezuelan capital Caracas against what they say is President Nicolas Maduro's heavy-handed repression of dissent.
At least 31 people have been killed in more than six weeks of student-led protests against the government, representing the biggest challenge yet to Maduro, the elected socialist heir to longtime late president Hugo Chavez.
Maduro and his government have been the target of near-daily protests fueled by public anger over soaring crime, hyperinflation, shortages of such basic goods as toilet paper and further stoked by overzealous police tactics.
Demonstrators are also angry at oil-rich Venezuela's close ties to Cuba, the only Communist one-party state in the Americas.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, governor of Miranda state, headed one of five protest marches that converged for a mass rally.
The protest was called after two opposition mayors were arrested earlier in the week. Another opposition leader, former mayor Leopoldo Lopez, was arrested on February 18 on charges of inciting violence during the protest.
Lopez, along with a faction of the opposition, favours tactics that would actively push Maduro from power.
At the rally, Lopez's wife Lilian Tintori read a letter from the jailed politician to Maduro in which he accused the president of being the "dictator of Venezuela." Saturday's Caracas rally was peaceful until a group of masked youths attempted to block a busy highway, triggering a brief intervention from riot police and security forces who fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse them.
The youths responded by throwing stones and more tear gas was fired to prevent protesters blocking streets. At least eight people were arrested, according to an NGO that monitors arrests.
Anti-government demos also broke out in cities such as Valencia, in the north, and Merida and San Cristobal in the west.
"In the name of freedom, put an end to dictatorship now," read one of the many banners held aloft in the Caracas protest, where opposition leader Henrique Capriles led one of several rallies.
Maduro, who succeeded leftist leader Chavez last year, has combined calls for dialogue with a hard stance against opposition rivals and demonstrators.
Maduro says he has fended off a coup bid aided or supported by the United States and other "fascists." Protests have mainly taken place in middle-class opposition strongholds.
Maduro still enjoys support among Venezuela's larger, poor population, allowing him to weather the weeks-long protests.
The crackdown on opposition figures contrasts with Maduro's call for rivals to join a "peace conference." The main opposition refuses to join the dialogue until the government frees more than 100 protesters who remain behind bars.
A large crowd of pro-government supporters, mostly students, marched separately in downtown Caracas.
Maduro joined the march and claimed that opposition protesters "have burned" 15 public university buildings since the demonstrations began on February 4, which he described as acts of "terrorism, vandalism and fascism." Maduro also threatened to arrest Ramon Muchacho, the mayor of Chacao - a Caracas district that has become the heart of opposition activity in the capital - for not cracking down on protesters in his jurisdiction. The mayor said there had been "several" arrests during the march on Saturday.