CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A National Guardsman and a civilian were killed Thursday as gangs of government supporters on motorcycles rode into east Caracas neighborhoods to remove street barricades placed by opposition protesters.
The pitched battle in a mixed industrial and residential district heightened tensions on the same day the Venezuelan government expelled foreign diplomats for the second time in a month.
More than 100 men on motorcycles carrying pipes and rocks swarmed Los Ruices in the incident, trying to force their way into some buildings. Residents screamed "murderers, murderers" from rooftops and the motorcyclists taunted them from below, urging them to come down and fight.
Venezuelans fed up with food shortages and unchecked violence have been staging nearly daily street protests since mid-February, snarling traffic with barricades of garbage, furniture and burning tires. At least 21 people have been killed in related violence, by government count, in the country's worst unrest in years.
President Nicolas Maduro's administration shows no signs of crumbling from several weeks of nearly daily demonstrations, but the country appears in a stalemate. Protesters are mostly from the middle and upper classes although they do include poorer Venezuelans who don't protest in their home districts for fear of pro-government paramilitaries.
Sucre Mayor Carlos Ocariz said residents of Los Ruices reported hearing gunshots after motorcyclists began dismantling the barricades. Some apartment dwellers began banging pots and raining down bottles to express their anger, he said. In the melee, a 24-year-old motorcycle taxi driver was shot dead.
"I'm not going to be irresponsible and accuse anyone," Ocariz said. "I condemn the violence and the shots must be investigated, but I also reject the brutal repression" of security forces.
When National Guardsmen arrived to secure the area, a 25-year-old sergeant was shot through the neck and killed. Ocariz said that according to district police, who report to him, in both cases the men's wounds seemed to indicate the shots came from above.
Pro-government motorcycle gangs who reside in slums served as street-level enforcers for the late President Hugo Chavez and continue to menace opponents of the ruling socialists. The opposition claims they are bankrolled by the government.
Maduro, meeting with U.S. actor Danny Glover, said on state TV that the slain motorcyclist, Jose Gregorio Amaris, used his motorcycle as a taxi and was clearing debris in order to do his job.
He called those who build street barricades "vandals who hate the people" and said a second motorcyclist was seriously injured.
Among opposition demands is that the government disarm the motorcycle-riding paramilitaries, called "colectivos."
A day after Maduro said he was breaking diplomatic relations with Panama over its push for Organization of American States-sponsored mediation in the crisis, his government expelled Panama's ambassador and three other diplomats, giving them 48 hours to leave.
Last month, Venezuela expelled three U.S. diplomats, accusing them of conspiring with the opposition, a claim that Washington denied.
Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said Venezuela also had suspended debt negotiations over $1 billion owed to Panamanian exporters.
In the latest development affecting what the opposition calls a full-scale government assault on freedom of expression, a newspaper critical of the government said it was the target of a criminal defamation suit filed by National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello.
Editor Teodoro Petkoff wrote in the paper, TalCual, that the Caracas judge overseeing the case had ordered him and three other executives as well as columnist Carlos Genatios not to leave the country without permission.
Cabello accused the newspaper of printing something he claimed never to have said: That if people don't like crime they should leave the country.
A conviction would carry a prison sentence of two to four years.
Associated Press writer Christopher Sherman and cameraman Marko Alvarez contributed to this report.