More than 50 children were evacuated from a Caracas hospital after it allegedly came under attack during a night of clashes across the Venezuelan capital, as another fatal shooting brought the death toll from three weeks of protests to at least nine.
Emergency services pulled 54 children from the maternity and children’s hospital in the impoverished neighborhood of El Valle in the early hours of Friday morning, after what the opposition said was a bombardment by tear gas but the government claimed was a targeted attack by armed opposition groups.
On Friday authorities said they were investigating another 11 deaths overnight in El Valle, some of the victims reportedly killed by electrocution while looting. A firefighter said eight people had died in an electrocution incident after breaking into a bakery in the neighbourhood.
El Valle was the scene of fierce overnight battles between security forces and anti-government protesters, with streets blocked, barricades set ablaze and business attacked as riot police fired tear gas and helicopters hovered overhead.
Delcy Rodriguez, the Venezuelan foreign minister, insisted that “armed groups hired by the opposition” had attacked the hospital.
But Freddy Guevara, vice-president of the opposition-led National Assembly, denounced her as “irresponsible”, adding that “everyone knows that the maternity and children’s hospital was evacuated because of the tear gas bombs of the dictatorship”.
Rosalinda Prieto, the hospital director, was quoted by local media as saying the facility was under assault for almost three hours.
“We were attacked by violent groups who launched a rain of stones and blunt objects at us. Afterwards, they burned a great quantity of rubbish in front of the hospital and the smoke got inside the facility. There were recently born babies there in the emergency area, some in observation.”
She said the attackers then tried to enter the hospital, at which point they called the authorities for help. The children have been relocated to other medical facilities in Caracas.
A man was shot dead in Petare, Caracas’s largest shantytown and one of several other neighbourhoods to be hit by violence overnight on Thursday. Carlos Ocariz, the opposition mayor of Sucre, where Petare is located, named the man as Melvin Guaitan, a “humble neighborhood worker”, and demanded an investigation.
The circumstances of the shooting were not immediately clear.
Nine people have now been killed and hundreds injured during three weeks of nationwide demonstrations against the government of Nicolas Maduro, the heir to the Leftist “Bolivarian Revolution” begun by the late Hugo Chavez.
Two university students and a National Guard officer died on Wednesday during nationwide protests dubbed ‘The Mother of All Marches”. Witnesses to the student deaths said armed groups of government supporters known as colectivos were responsible; the National Guard officer was allegedly shot by a sniper.
Protesters are demanding an end to what they say has become a dictatorship, insisting the government call local elections delayed from last year, hold an early presidential vote, free jailed opposition politicians and rescind electoral bans on others.
They accuse Mr Maduro of leading the oil-rich nation into economic disaster, with hyperinflation and critical shortages of food, medicine and even fuel leaving many Venezuelans struggling for survival.
Mr Maduro blames right wing “saboteurs” for orchestrating Venezuela’s crisis and has accused the opposition of fomenting a coup with the backing of the United States.
On Thursday, dressed bizarrely in a white doctor’s coat and stethoscope, he said he had activated a national security crackdown named Plan Zamora to stop “destabilization, disturbances, a coup”. Referring to the failed 2002 opposition coup against Chavez, he added. “No April 11, never again.”