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Monday February 17, 2014 MYT 11:40:02 AM
Monday February 17, 2014 MYT 11:40:02 AM
by daniel wallis AND eyanir chinea
CARACAS (Reuters) - A Venezuelan opposition leader wanted by police over deadly street protests said on Sunday he would hand himself in next week after his supporters march in Caracas.
Authorities accuse Leopoldo Lopez of murder and terrorism in connection with violence around four days of sporadic anti-government demonstrations that have left three people dead and both sides blaming each other for the bloodshed.
"I will be there showing my face. I have nothing to fear," Lopez said in a brief video posted online. "If there is any illegal decision to jail me, then I will accept that decision and that infamous persecution by the state."
The protesters, mostly in better-off eastern Caracas, have vowed to stay in the streets until they force President Nicolas Maduro from power, although there is no sign of that happening.
In a late-night nationally televised broadcast, Maduro told Lopez to hand himself in "without a show," and said he had rejected pressure from Washington to drop the case against him.
He said he had ordered three U.S. consular officials to leave the country for conspiring against his government during meetings with students. He did not name them, but said the foreign minister would give more details later.
U.S. State Department officials in Washington were not immediately available for comment.
"Venezuela doesn't take orders from anyone!" Maduro said.
He says his government is facing small bands of "trained fascists" who are determined to block roads, damage property and fight with the security forces. For a fourth night, police fired teargas to clear about 1,000 protesters in eastern Caracas.
In Lopez's video, he said he would deliver a petition to the state prosecutor's office on Tuesday after his supporters marched from the capital's Plaza Venezuela. He would join the rally at the end and the visit the office alone, he said.
Hours later, Maduro called on employees of state oil company PDVSA to march to the presidential palace on Tuesday on the same route - something which might put off some in the opposition.
In a day of twists and turns unusual even for Venezuela's turbulent politics, Maduro said his government had received a U.S. request to sit down with the opposition, free arrested protesters, and drop the charges against Lopez.
"I replied that I don't accept threats from anyone in this world!" Maduro said, flourishing his printed response in a manner very much like his mentor, the late Hugo Chavez.
Showing news photos to the camera of protesters in Caracas lighting gasoline bombs and fighting with riot police, as well as burned-out police vehicles, he addressed the U.S. leader.
"Here you go Obama! This is the result of their actions, the fascists!" he said. "Nothing will stop us from defeating them."
Hooded protesters have also gathered outside the headquarters of state TV channel VTV for the past few nights, lighting fires in the streets and hurling stones and Molotov cocktails toward the building.
Maduro said VTV was being attacked again during his speech. And he advised Lopez to hand himself in quickly.
"The far right are looking for him to create a tragedy ... in their madness, they want to create a political crisis. They have thought about ending the life of Senor Lopez."
Lopez, a photogenic 42-year-old who speaks fluent English, once studied in the United States on a swimming scholarship.
He had hoped to run against Hugo Chavez in the 2012 presidential election but bowed out of the opposition's primary to support state governor Henrique Capriles' unsuccessful bid.
The unrest of the last few days has underlined the problem for peaceful student demonstrators seeking to distance themselves from a masked, violent rump. Student leaders say they are "infiltrators."
Sporadic political protests, especially in the staunchly pro-opposition parts of the east of the capital, have become common over the last decade or so in Venezuela. But they have normally fizzled out after a few days as locals get tired of blocked streets and the smells of teargas and burning trash.
Chacao residents fear the city's criminals have taken advantage of the unrest and stretched police resources to rob and steal with more impunity than usual in the deserted streets surrounding the nighttime protests.
Many moderates in the opposition say demonstrations in which people get hurt and property damaged only play into the hands of critics in the government who are always at the ready to jump on any signs their rivals are violent "saboteurs."
Capriles, the opposition leader who lost to Chavez in 2012, and then to Maduro last year, also urged his supporters on Sunday to continue demonstrating, but without any violence.
"Don't let those who have an interest in violence trap you into an agenda that plays into the hands of those who want to hide the problems which we have in this country," he said.
(Additional reporting by Diego Ore, Girish Gupta and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Brian Ellsworth, Nick Zieminski, Jonathan Oatis and Eric Walsh)
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