CARACAS (AFP) - Venezuela's authorities deployed hundreds of security forces, including troops in combat gear, into an opposition stronghold on Monday, March 17, 2014, to stamp out protests against the leftist government of President Nicolas Maduro.
The show of force came as the death toll from a month and a half of protests rose to 29 Monday, after a National Guard captain shot one day earlier during a protest in the city of Maracay died.
Government forces quickly established control after moving into the area around the Plaza Altamira, a focal point of nightly clashes in eastern Caracas between masked protesters and security forces.
The government described the operation as a "liberation" of the neighbourhood, an area of middle and upper income residences and small businesses called Chacao.
At a hastily arranged meeting, Venezuela's Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres told the opposition mayor of Chacao he was "turning over the plaza as a territory of peace". Mr Rodriguez told reporters the aim was "to develop intensive patrolling that will return this municipality to normalcy".
"We are establishing the rights of thousands of citizens of Chacao who have been shut up in their homes because of the violent actions of groups taking place here," he said.
Several hundred National Guard troops in combat gear and armed with rifles patrolled the area in groups of four to eight, making spot checks of passing vehicles.
About 150 civilian "Guards of the People" were seen patrolling the neighbourhood on motorcycles.
Columns of police vehicles lined the streets, while workers cleared away barricades built by protesters with garbage and rubble.
Chacao Mayor Ramon Muchacho said more than 1,000 security force members took part in the operation.
"The government has informed us that there will be no restrictions on Constitutional guarantees, nor on freedom of movement or on the right to protest," he said.
Residents' reactions appeared mixed as the day progressed.
"I think it's good that the Guard comes in so people can get around," said insurance agent Osvaldo Reyes. "I work around here and I've had to swallow tear gas, I'm still hoarse. This is the right thing to do."
Physical therapist Cynthia Valcazar, however, said the operation was "to intimidate, so that the people won't go out and protest."
On Saturday, Mr Maduro warned he would not tolerate any more incidents, and intended to take control of the Altamira Plaza area.
His government has been the target of daily protests in cities around the country since Feb 4, fuelled by public anger over violent crime, inflation, shortages and further stoked by often heavy-handed police tactics.
Mr Maduro contends the protests are part of a "fascist" right-wing, US-backed plot to destabilise his year-old government.
Yet days ago, Mr Maduro suggested a "high-level" bid to improve highly strained ties with the United States.
On Monday, State Department spokesman Jen Psaki said "the Venezuelan Government should stop the violence against its citizens who are exercising their freedom of speech.
"The Venezuelan Government should release those it has unjustly jailed, allow citizens to express their freedom of speech, lift restrictions on freedom of the press, and engage in an inclusive dialogue with Venezuelans across the political spectrum. That would be the most productive steps - those would be the most productive steps they could take," Ms Psaki stressed.
Pressed on whether some US dialogue could take place, she said: "We believe a dialogue should be facilitated by a third party acceptable to all parties in Venezuela, including those in the opposition who believe their democratic rights are being suppressed."