CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelans blocked streets and lit fires during scattered protests across the country on Tuesday night with over 40 people arrested during the growing anti-government unrest in the midst of a crippling economic crisis.
In a worrying sign for leftist President Nicolas Maduro, groups in low-income, traditionally pro-government neighborhoods took to the streets in nighttime protests during the typically calm Easter week, witnesses and opposition lawmakers reported.
Many were galvanized by footage of a crowd in the poor town of San Felix heckling and throwing objects at the usually closely-protected Maduro during a rally on Tuesday, before state television cut off the broadcast.
"Last night's protests in Caracas and the provinces are not isolated occurrences, we Venezuelans are sick of living in a dictatorship," said opposition lawmaker Olivia Lozano on Twitter, as the coalition prepared for another protest on Thursday.
Witnesses said residents of a number of working-class Caracas neighborhoods blocked streets with trash or burning debris, describing confused street melees and clashes with security forces.
Government officials did not provide an official account of the events, and the Information Ministry did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The opposition says Maduro has morphed into a dictator after a Supreme Court decision in late March to assume the functions of the opposition-led congress. The court quickly overturned the most controversial part of its decision, but the move breathed new life into the fractured opposition movement.
News that the national comptroller on Friday had banned high-profile opposition leader Henrique Capriles from office for 15 years drew broad criticism, too. Maduro's foes are demanding the government call delayed state elections, which polls suggest would not go well for the ruling Socialists.
But it is Venezuela's extended economic crisis that has ordinary people fuming.
Venezuelans have been suffering food and medicine shortages for months, leading many to skip meals or go without crucial treatment. Lines of hundreds form in front of supermarkets as people jostle for hours under the hot sun hoping price-controlled rice or flour will be delivered.
The crisis has especially hurt the poor, long the base of support of Maduro and his predecessor the late Hugo Chavez.
Amid what the opposition coalition says is a crackdown on dissent, some 43 people were arrested on Tuesday, according to rights group Penal Forum.
In total, 325 people were arrested between April 4-11 during the most sustained protests since 2014, with 153 people still behind bars, the group added.
Five males, aged 15, 17, 18, 19 and 20, were arrested for throwing "sharp objects" against Maduro's vehicle on Tuesday night, according to a report by a local National Guard division seen by Reuters.
Local media reported lootings overnight in the working class bedroom community of Guarenas outside Caracas. Two young men have been killed during protests in the last week, according to authorities. One police officer has been arrested.
Maduro says that under a veneer of pacifism, a U.S.-backed opposition is actually encouraging violent protests in a bid to topple his government and get its hands on Venezuela's oil wealth.
State officials have tweeted images and videos of demonstrators vandalizing public property and throwing rocks at police.
Despite the spiking tensions, many in the opposition worry extended protests will not spur early and fair elections, but rather increase violence and chaos in the already turbulent country.
Many others stay at home out of fear of violence or because they are consumed with standing in line for food.
(Reporting by Caracas newsroom; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Hay)