Venezuelan police chase protesters into mall, then tear gas them

A youth has his face rinsed from the effects of tear gas after security forces lobbed tear gas at demonstrators sheltering inside a shopping mall during a protest march in Caracas. (AP)
A youth has his face rinsed from the effects of tear gas after security forces lobbed tear gas at demonstrators sheltering inside a shopping mall during a protest march in Caracas. (AP)

Caracas - Venezuelan police chased anti-government protesters into a shopping mall on Thursday and fired tear gas, leaving dozens injured in the latest spasm of unrest in the oil-rich nation saddled with deep economic woes and grassroots anger.

The violent round of cat-and-mouse came a day after one of the most stunning episodes in three months of unrest: a pro-government, club-wielding mob overrunning the National Assembly.

The malaise has cost the lives of 91 people as opposition activists who blame President Nicolas Maduro for the country's descent into food shortages and other economic chaos press on with nearly daily street protests.

On Thursday protesters tried to march on the Supreme Court, which the opposition says is stacked with pro-Maduro lackies. But police firing tear gas pushed them back and even chased some fleeing demonstrators into a huge shopping mall and shot the stinging gas in there, too.

'People were running for their lives'

A total of 45 people in the mall, including 17 children, received emergency medical treatment, said Ramon Muchacho, mayor of the Caracas district Chacao, which is an opposition stronghold.

"We came here to get an ice cream and see a movie, and look at this disaster," said teenager Alejandra Vargas, her eyes red from the tear gas. Nearby, a woman carrying a baby was escorted out by firefighters.

Protester Rosa Rivas, 43, taking part in the rally with her 15-year-old daughter, said when the police forced the crowd to disperse, some went into the mall, either through the main entrance or a parking garage.

"But they chased us. People were running for their lives," Rivas told AFP. The entire mall - 531 stores - was later evacuated as a precaution.

The unrest came one day after some 100 government supporters armed with clubs and pipes stormed the opposition-dominated National Assembly. They beat lawmakers, injuring seven, as police stood by and watched.

The pro-Maduro crowd then stood guard outside the assembly for nine hours, screaming insults at lawmakers and preventing them from leaving until police finally intervened and set up a security cordon to let them out.

Maduro condemned the assault and promised an investigation, but did not publicly acknowledge the intruders were his supporters.

The attack drew condemnation from the United States, France, the European Union and the Organization of American States.

Maduro, a former bus driver handpicked by the late socialist firebrand Hugo Chavez as his successor, is wildly unpopular among everyday people but retains the key support of the military.

The Ortega factor

However, Maduro now faces criticism even within his own camp, namely from Attorney General Luisa Ortega. The Supreme Court could soon fire her.

That is because Ortega has launched a legal challenge against the government on human rights grounds, and a case against Supreme Court judges.

She accuses Maduro of violating the constitution through his plans to convene an unelected assembly to rewrite the constitution.

Tensions in Venezuela rose another notch late Thursday when Katherine Haringhton, the woman named deputy attorney general and seen as Ortega's replacement if she is fired, showed up unexpectedly at the attorney general's headquarters. Ortega denied her entry.

In a statement, Ortega said she did this because Haringhton was designated by the Supreme Court when such a naming was up to her and the National Assembly, not the court. She called it illegal and unconstitutional.

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