Protest leader arrives in Caracas for arrest

CARACAS, Venezuela - Government security units and protesters were locked Tuesday in a standoff in a plaza where opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez arrived to march to the Interior Ministry for his arrest.

Lopez, who has been in hiding for days, arrived shortly before noon and using a megaphone told the crowd he was not afraid of arrest.

"If they put me in prison, it'll wake up the people. That's worthwhile," he said.

"I'm never going to leave this country."

National Guard and police units, including trucks with water cannons, closed off access to Chacaito Plaza from all directions. Subway stations in the zone, an upscale neighborhood in the eastern part of the city, were also closed.

Globovision television station showed hundreds of protesters, who are wearing white to show their commitment to peace, milling in front of lines of policemen and guardsmen.

Lopez is accused of charges ranging from murder to conspiracy for demonstrations last week that turned violent. Lopez denies the charges.

Late Monday night, police units stormed the party's headquarters in an attempt to catch Lopez before the march. They seized computers and mobile phones.

Pro-government demonstrators, including thousands of workers from the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA, were congregating just a mile away from anti-government protesters.

"The fascists are not going to destabilize our country,'' PDVSA President Rafael Ramirez told reporters at the government rally.

"We are in the street to protect our government and our revolution,'' said Ramirez, who is also the country's vice president for economic affairs and oil minister.

Ramirez likened today's scheduled protest to demonstrations in 2002 that led to a short-lived coup against the late Hugo Chavez. El Universal reported that access to the presidential palace, where President Nicolas Maduro was staying, was also blocked.

Others sided with the protesters, many of whom students who marched Monday and were attacked by pro-government thugs, said the students.

"I couldn't stay in the house and do nothing after I saw how they treated the students,'' says Ana Ramirez, 42, a housewife who left her two small children with a babysitter to join protesters. "This is our country too, and Maduro has to listen to us as well."

Meanwhile, Maduro fired the head of the secret police for disobeying his orders to stay in their quarters, he said. Maduro named Gustavo Enrique Gonzalez as the new head, replacing General Manuel Gregorio Bernal Martinez.

"It seems that a lot of the government forces - national guard, police, and others - are acting on their own,'' says Tarek Yorde, a Caracas-based political consultant.


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