Rage, hope as Venezuelan soldiers join anti-Maduro protests

Smoke and tear gas filled the air outside the military base in Caracas, where crowds chanting "Free Venezuela" flocked to embrace the band of soldiers who joined Juan Guaido's bid to oust President Nicolas Maduro on Tuesday.

Violent clashes unfolded all day outside La Carlota base, where thousands of flag-waving opposition demonstrators took a stand alongside a dozen rebel soldiers, wearing blue armbands to show their new allegiance.

It was outside the National Guard base that Guaido filmed a video, posted online Tuesday morning, in which the self-proclaimed acting president claimed to have the support of "brave soldiers."

"We're also people and we're fed up with this dictatorship," said one of the soldiers backing the 35-year-old National Assembly leader.

"We have families, we're know how they're suffering," said the soldier, still in uniform and carrying a gun on his shoulder, in brief comments to AFP before he was asked by a senior officer to halt the interview.

In his video message, Guaido urged people to take to the streets to demand the socialist Maduro step down.

Heeding his call, groups of protesters with their heads wrapped in clothing to protect them from the tear gas, approached the base's perimeter fence from a nearby highway, hurling stones and molotov cocktails.

Some managed to enter the base through a hole in the fence but were quickly driven back, and confusion reigned as the demonstrators were met with gunfire and tear gas fired by soldiers at the perimeter of the base.

At least 69 people were injured in the clashes, two from gunshot wounds, according to Venezuela's health services.

The government, which claimed one of its soldiers was hit in the neck by a bullet, played down the significance of the uprising and urged its supporters to head to the presidential palace to show their backing for Maduro.

Maduro's supporters inside the base received support from motorcycles and armored vehicles, one of which was driven into the crowd of protesters, according to television images.

- 'We need the armed forces' -

"We need the support of the armed forces. We don't have weapons, they have weapons and they should support us in our demands for our rights," one of the demonstrators, 24-year-old Samuel Inostroza, told AFP.

Grasping a Venezuelan flag, Inostroza said he was hoping "the moment" has arrived after "years of struggling" against the Maduro regime.

Inostroza said he was detained for two days in 2014 after attending a rally organized by Leopoldo Lopez, the opposition leader who spent years in prison and under house arrest -- emerging Tuesday to stand alongside Guaido before seeking refuge in the Chilean embassy.

"Rebellion," read one huge banner held by a group of demonstrators.

"I'm here for my family, for my country, because we're fed up with so many difficulties," said Samira Caceres, 53.

"This is the opportunity to have a future," said Alejandro Dominguez, 22.

Venezuela has suffered five years of recession marked by shortages of basic necessities such as food and medicines, as well as failing public services including water, electricity and transport.

The United Nations says a quarter of Venezuela's 30 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian aid, and that 3.7 million Venezuelans are malnourished.

It says more than 2.7 million people have fled the country's economic woes since 2015.

Hyperinflation, which the International Monetary Fund says will reach a staggering 10 million percent this year, has left salaries and savings virtually worthless.

Caceres's family has been hit hard: she says they have all lost close to eight kilograms (18 pounds) due to a lack of money to buy food.

"It hurts to see them losing weight," she said through tears.
.AFP

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