CARACAS • Venezuela is bracing itself for new marches against President Nicolas Maduro after the death toll climbed to 20 in three weeks of violence in protests demanding the leftist leader's ouster.
The opposition yesterday called for protesters to march in silence to the Catholic Church's episcopal seats nationwide in a show of condemnation of the government.
It will be a test of the authorities' tolerance for peaceful protests after days of running battles pitting riot police and pro-government vigilantes against protesters hurling stones and Molotov cocktails.
The last protests, on Thursday, descended into a night of riots and looting that left 12 people dead in the capital, Caracas.
After the planned show of silent defiance, the centre-right opposition plans to return to a more confrontational strategy tomorrow, when it is calling for Venezuelans to block roads in a bid to grind the country to a halt.
The two sides blame each other for the unrest.
The government accuses the opposition of hiring armed agitators to sow violence, while the opposition says it is the government hiring thugs and ordering the police and army to repress peaceful protests.
Protesters blame Mr 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.
Mr Maduro says the protests against him are part of a coup plot backed by the United States.
Pressure on the socialist president has been mounting since 2014, as falling prices for Venezuela's crucial oil exports have sent the once- booming economy into a tailspin.
According to pollster Venebarometro, seven in 10 Venezuelans disapprove of Mr Maduro, whose term does not end until 2019.
The opposition is demanding elections to exit the crisis.
Residents described terrifying scenes on Thursday night and early Friday in the Caracas neighbourhoods hit by riots and looting.
"It was like a war," said Mr Carlos Yanez, a resident of El Valle, where officials said 11 people died. "The police were firing tear gas, armed civilians were shooting guns," he said.
And as residents and workers cleaned up the destruction on Friday, groups of people, including children, scavenged for food amid the wreckage.