A Venezuelan court ordered the arrest on Thursday of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez on charges including murder and terrorism linked to street protests that resulted in the deaths of three people the day before.
The U.S.-educated Mr. Lopez has for two weeks helped organize sporadic demonstrations around the country to denounce President Nicolas Maduro for failing to control inflation, crime and product shortages, and vows to push him from office.
The President accuses him of sowing violence to try to stage a coup similar to the one 12 years ago that briefly ousted late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, though there is little indication that the protests could topple Mr. Maduro.
Shortly before a Caracas court upheld a request from the Public Prosecutor’s Office to order Mr. Lopez’s arrest, the opposition leader blamed armed government supporters for firing on peaceful protesters.
“The government is playing the violence card, and not for the first time. They’re blaming me without any proof. … I have a clear conscience because we called for peace,” Mr. Lopez said.
“We won’t retreat and we can’t retreat because this is about our future, about our children, about millions of people.”
On Thursday, Mr. Lopez was with his lawyers at his home in the same wealthy eastern district of Chacao where he was once mayor, his Popular Will political party said.
Venezuela’s capital was largely calm on Thursday, with many residents staying at home. There were, however, a few small demonstrations including one by about 200 students that blocked a road in front of a university in the east of the city.
“We want solutions to problems, not endless confrontation and violence,” said student Manuel Armas, 19, outside the Alejandro Humboldt University, where protesters waved banners saying “No More Blood.”
Students were also in the streets on Thursday in the western state of Tachira, burning tires and blocking some roads.
Almost a year after the death of Mr. Chavez, the bloodshed on Wednesday in Caracas was the latest demonstration of the OPEC nation’s polarization and the mutual mistrust between both political camps.
The fatalities included two student protesters and one community activist from a militantly pro-government neighbourhood in the poor west end of Caracas.
Each side blamed the other in often virulent exchanges via Twitter, the country’s preferred social network.
Scores of government supporters gathered on Thursday outside the ransacked Public Prosecutor’s Office building, chanting pro-Maduro slogans and denouncing “fascist violence.”
Venezuela’s global bonds, which fluctuate sharply on political tension and news of unrest, were down as much as 3 per cent on Thursday.
Mr. Maduro said further protests would not be allowed. “They want to topple the government through violence,” he said. “They have no ethics. … We will not permit any more attacks.”
Sporadic political protests have become common over the last decade, but they usually fizzle out within days as residents grow tired of blocked streets and the smell of burning tires.