CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's national guard commander on Sunday defended his forces in the face of criticism from rights activists and the opposition, and said riot-control equipment supplied by China has averted casualties during a wave of massive street protests.
At least 72 people have been killed since hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in protests that began in April demanding elections, the release of opposition prisoners and calling on President Nicolas Maduro to accept foreign aid to alleviate food and medicine shortages.
The opposition has criticized foreign sales of non-lethal security equipment to Maduro's government, saying the gear is used to repress protests and eats up funds that should be spent on food and medicine.
General Antonio Benavides, the national guard commander, said equipment such as armored vehicles, water cannons and tear gas supplied by countries including China helped prevent casualties and rights violations.
"Never again will the armed forces be sent to the streets with weapons of war used on the Venezuelan people, whether or not they are from the opposition," Benavides said, contrasting the situation with the 1989 "Caracazo" riots when forces used live ammunition and hundreds died.
"Right now we have the best equipment in Latin America. ... It's the best technology, preserving the rights of those who use it, but also of the protesters," Benavides said in an interview with Televen TV network.
The national guard is a branch of Venezuela's armed forces in charge of public order, working alongside the country's police forces.
Benavides said 600,000 protesters had taken part in marches since the protests began in April. He said the forces were operating under difficult conditions and faced petrol bombs, gunfire and smoke, and acknowledged that occasionally his forces lost control.
One national guard member was shot dead by a sniper in the protests, 45 have been suffered gunshot wounds, and 252 have suffered other injuries, Benavides said.
The group Human Rights Watch on Friday said security forces engaged in arbitrary arrests and detainee abuse that in some cases amounts to torture during the protests.
"They have fired teargas canisters directly toward demonstrators, journalists, health facilities and homes," the group said, citing video and photographic evidence.
Benavides defended the use of VN-4 armored personnel carriers, made by China's defense conglomerate China North Industries Group Corp, or Norinco, as well as water cannons known as "Whales" and vehicular barriers dubbed "Bats" by protesters. He also defended the use of tear gas on protesters, saying it is an irritant but not toxic.
The national guard this month was criticized by Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino for what he called isolated atrocities on the streets.
Brazilian firm Condor Non-Lethal Technologies on Friday confirmed it had two contracts to supply tear gas to Venezuela. But Brazil's defense ministry said the canisters have not been shipped, and Colombian airline Avianca said it would not transport them.
(Reporting by Frank Jack Daniel, Brian Ellsworth and Mircely Guanipa; Additional reporting by Brad Haynes in Sao Paulo; Editing by Will Dunham)