The death toll in three weeks of violence at anti-government protests in Venezuela jumped to 20 people after a night of clashes and pillaging left 12 people dead in Caracas.
Riot police and pro-government vigilantes fought running battles with protesters demanding the ouster of President Nicolas Maduro on the capital's east, west and south sides, witnesses said.
"It was like a war," said 33-year-old construction worker Carlos Yanez, a resident of the southwestern district of El Valle.
"The police were firing tear gas, armed civilians were shooting guns at buildings. My family and I threw ourselves to the floor. It was horrible," he told AFP.
Eleven people were killed in the neighborhood, according to officials.
Eight of them were reportedly electrocuted while trying to loot a bakery amid the chaos. The rest were shot.
At nightfall on Friday, more protests and pockets of unrest were reported in eastern Caracas, and in Macuto in the neighboring state of Vargas. There was a heavy security presence in the city.
Police fired teargas to disperse crowds in the Caracas district of Palo Verde, where burning barricades of trash were set up. Armed men on motorbikes also sparked panic, witnesses told AFP.
- Hospital evacuated -
The opposition accuses the government of sending gangs of armed thugs to attack them.
Videos shot by El Valle residents on Thursday night showed people throwing bottles and other objects out their windows at the gunmen in the streets below, shouting "Murderers!"
At one point, street protesters hurling Molotov cocktails managed to set fire to one of the armored police trucks firing tear gas at them, lighting up the night sky.
Fifty-four people, including newborn babies, were evacuated from a maternity hospital in the neighborhood.
There were conflicting explanations about the reason.
The government said "armed gangs hired by the opposition" had attacked the hospital. The opposition rejected the allegation, saying the children had to be evacuated because of tear gas fired by Maduro's "dictatorship."
The hospital's director, Rosalinda Prieto, told AFP the evacuation was prompted by the stench of burning trash set on fire by protesters.
A man was shot dead in protests in the eastern neighborhood of Petare, the local mayor said. Prosecutors said they had opened an investigation.
Opposition leaders have called new protests for Saturday and Monday.
On Saturday, they plan to march in silence to the Catholic Church's episcopal seats nationwide. They plan to erect roadblocks on Monday to grind the country to a halt.
- Maduro sees US plot -
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 against him are part of a US-backed coup plot.
On Thursday, he said the opposition had agreed to new talks. But his opponents denied the claim, saying the only way forward was to call elections.
Senior opposition leader Henrique Capriles slammed Maduro as a "dictator" and "mythomaniac."
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 escalated on March 30, when the Supreme Court moved to seize the powers of the legislature, the only lever of state authority not controlled by Maduro and his allies.
The court partly backtracked after an international outcry, but tension only increased when the authorities slapped a political ban on Capriles two weeks ago.
According to pollster Venebarometro, seven in 10 Venezuelans disapprove of Maduro, whose term does not end until 2019.
The bikers thundered up in a phalanx of red jackets and dark clothes, some with faces covered, revving motorcycles before a thousand protesters in Caracas. They threw tear gas canisters to disperse the crowd. Then, witnesses say, they pulled pistols and fired.
Someone fell. Carlos Moreno, 17, lay sprawled on the ground, a pool of blood around his head.
The uniformed men who shot Mr. Moreno were not government security forces, witnesses say. Rather, they were members of armed bands who have become key enforcers for President Nicolás Maduro as he attempts to crush a growing protest movement against his rule.
The groups, called collectives or colectivos in Spanish, originated as pro-government community organizations that have long been a part of the landscape of leftist Venezuelan politics. Civilians with police training, colectivo members are armed by the government, say experts who have studied them.
Colectivos control vast territory across Venezuela, financed in some cases by extortion, black-market food and parts of the drug trade as the government turns a blind eye in exchange for loyalty.
Now they appear to be playing a key role in repressing dissent.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Caracas and other cities demanding elections in Venezuela. Galvanized by a ruinous economy that has left basic foods and medicines scarce — as well as a botched attempt by leftists to dissolve the country’s congress last month — they present the largest threat to the country’s rulers since a coup that briefly ousted Mr. Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, in 2002.
Mr. Maduro has responded by sending National Guardsmen armed with water cannons and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds. But alongside the security forces, experts and witnesses say, are the enforcers from the colectivos, who engage in fiercer and often deadly intimidation.
The presence of the colectivos hardly ends with demonstrations on the streets.
As rising foreign debt and falling world oil prices have depleted the Venezuelan government’s coffers, it has increasingly turned to colectivos as enforcers. From labor disputes with unions to student demonstrations on university campuses, colectivos are appearing almost anywhere the government sees citizens getting out of line, Venezuelans say.
As the polling stations which opened in continental France on Sunday in the first round of the country's presidential elections, political analyst Anatoly Vasserman took a closer look at the main candidates for France's top job.
The four frontrunners in the race are independent candidate Emmanuel Macron, far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, the head of the far-left political movement La France Insoumise (Unsubmissive France) Jean-Luc Melenchon, and Francois Fillon of the center-right party The Republicans.
He added that, unlike the majority of pollsters, he was not sure that Le Pen will lose out in the May 7 run-off.
Anatoly Vasserman believes that if in the second round Le Pen faces off with the independent hopeful Emmanuel Macron, this would increase her chances for victory because despite all the calls not to vote for the “dangerous” Le Pen, Macron is still seen by many as a political appointee of those who brought Francois Hollande to power five years ago.
“No matter how hard he tries to portray himself as a ‘neutral’ and ‘independent’ candidate, everyone sees that many leading members of Hollande’s Socialist party have urged people to vote for Macron instead of their party’s own candidate,” Vasserman noted.
He added that before he entered the race, Emmanuel Macros had spent some time working as an investment banker and a member of Francois Hollande’s Cabinet.
Anatoly Vasserman said that just like in the case of Marine Le Pen, many in France who support Melenchon won’t say so when answering pollsters’ questions. People who plan to vote for far-right or far-left candidates are usually more tight-lipped about their plans than those who support “centrist” candidates.
The false flag Syrian chemical attack and the subsequent “frightening” (that turned out to be rather harmless) missile attack against the Shayrat air base in the Homs Governorate launched by the US Navy could remind an impartial analyst a chess game on Trump’s part that was thought over in advance. It’s clear that Trump aims at trampling Syria’s sovereignty in bid to show that Bashar al-Assad is no more than a pawn on the Syrian chess table.
Any outright hostile steps that the White House takes against Damascus are designed to serve as an indication of the absence of any need to seek a reason or a permission from Bashar al-Assad for the US to take any steps on the Syrian soil. The international community is also being purposefully disregarded by the Trump administration as if an attack against the sovereign Syrian state doesn’t constitute a violation of international law. We are being shown that Washington will be taking into consideration nothing but its own plans and interests while deploying its military forces in the region, which doesn’t necessarily mean that it will continue pretending that it was going to fight pursue the declared fight against the terrorists of ISIS. Hence, American bases that are being built in Syria as if the soil that they occupy is up for the tacking of anybody reckless enough to claim it, thus emphasizing once again that the West couldn’t care less about Assad’s opinion on that matter.
In recent years, Russia acquired two military bases in Syria – the Khmeimim air base and the naval Tartus base. The United States has had no foothold in Syria to speak of. In this regard, the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) of the US Armed Forces have been particularly active in pursuing the goals that were considered unimportant before Trump came to power. It is quite obvious America’s bases that are being erected to the east of the Euphrates are built with long-term goals in mind, so they are there to stay, no matter what turn the so-called War on Terror will take.
United States Secretary of Defense, James Mattis has already presented to Donald Trump the plan of military seizure of Syrian lands last February that was to be achieved by building a network of military facilities under the pretext of having an urgent need to fight the so-called Islamic State simultaneously in Iraq and Syria. According to this official, there’s no victory to achieve against ISIS without US military installations being installed no more that 35 miles from major Syrian cities that are being occupied by radical militants.
In this regard, in addition to enhancing the engineering and logistic capabilities of the recently acquired Syrian bases of Rmeilan and Kobani, construction works were urgently launched at the former Syrian armed forces base of Al-Tabqa in the Raqqa Governorate, with American engineers working at that base around the clock. In particular, a lot of work has been invested in reconstructing and expanding the runway so that the base will be able to host tactical aviation and air transport units. It is expected that the Al-Tabqa base will soon be playing a pivotal part of US plans.
It is noteworthy that the three above mentioned bases were constructed in the de facto regions of “Syrian Kurdistan”. Thus, the Trump administration tries to show that Damascus can forget about returning the Kurdish areas under its control. A somewhat similar scenario has already been used in Iraq, where “Iraqi Kurdistan” since 2003, in fact, was transformed into a sort of an autonomous region, with Baghdad having no real authority in those lands.
It won’t be an exaggeration to state that he northeastern part of Syria is of exceptional value to Washington these days, not so much as a way of promoting Kurdish forces, but because of the need to keep an eye on Russia, Iran, and also Turkey. Ankara has repeatedly shown its intent of cooperating with Russia in various areas, thus blackmailing certain NATO countries with the possible closure of Incirlik air base.
In addition, Washington’s tries to prevent any steps that Turkey could take against Syrian Kurds east of the Euphrates, thus using the Kurdish factor to push Ankara against the wall. After all, according to the business logics Trump Professes there’s no friends for Washington to be made anywhere, since Washington’s interests are the basis of this new American policy.
So both regional and global players, including Turkey, should carefully monitor Trump’s chess game in Syria, in order not to get deceived by his “pacifying” smile, in a bid to avoid losing before the game even starts.
On Friday afternoon, 3 mortars hit Israel, launched from the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.