Venezuela Arrests Hundreds, Sparking Opposition Protest

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -

Hundreds of Venezuelan police and troops broke up four makeshift camps maintained by student protesters, arresting 243 people Thursday in pre-dawn raids.

The tent cities were installed more than a month ago in front of the offices of the United Nations and in better-off neighborhoods in the capital to protest against President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government.

Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres presented homemade mortars, guns and Molotov cocktails that he said were seized at the camps and used to carry out “terrorist” acts against security forces.

The dismantling of the camps was announced just hours before a top opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, was scheduled to appear in court after being in custody since February. The hearing on whether he should begin trial on charges of inciting violence at anti-government protests was suspended and he was taken back to a military prison almost as soon as he arrived at the courthouse downtown.

Hours later, a scattered detritus of shoes, clothes and destroyed banners littered the streets where the makeshift campground once stood. A few dozen neighbors built barricades to block traffic, demanding the release of the students.

“How can this be allowed when the constitution guarantees the right to peaceful protest,” said Anais Serrano, a real estate agent. “These kids weren’t anything bad.”

The raids came as the U.S. Congress began debate Thursday on economic sanctions against top Venezuelan officials.

The Obama administration argued at a Senate committee hearing that sanctions would be premature while dialogue continues between Maduro’s government and some members of the opposition.

The legislation in both chambers is relatively modest. It centers on freezing assets and banning visas for Venezuelan officials who crushed anti-government protests. It would also boost aid for pro-democracy and civil society groups.

The South American country has been roiled since February by demonstrations that have resulted in 41 deaths on all sides and left 785 injured. At least 2,200 people have been arrested in connection with the protests over the last few months.