CARACAS (Reuters) - 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.
Using a slogan "The Exit", the U.S.-educated 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.
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 Maduro.
"Without a doubt, the violence was created by small groups coordinated, exalted and financed by Leopoldo Lopez," said Jorge Rodriguez, a leader of the ruling Socialist Party and mayor of the Caracas area where Wednesday's biggest marches took place.
Shortly before a Caracas court upheld a request from the Public Prosecutor's Office to order 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," Lopez told Reuters.
"We won't retreat and we can't retreat because this is about our future, about our children, about millions of people."
On Thursday, 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. Police briefly visited the party's headquarters, witnesses said, but then departed.
"NO MORE BLOOD"
With many Caracas residents staying at home on Thursday, there were sporadic student protests around the city. Some students blocked streets and burned tires.
"We want solutions to problems, not endless confrontation and violence," said student Manuel Armas, 19, outside the Alejandro Humboldt University, where around 200 protesters waved banners saying "No More Blood".
Students were also in the streets in western Andean regions, where there have been violent clashes in recent days.
Coming almost a year after the death of Chavez, the unrest has been the latest demonstration of the OPEC nation's polarization and the mutual mistrust between both political camps.
Wednesday's fatalities included two students and a 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 percent on Thursday.
Maduro, a 51-year-old former bus driver and union activist who has staked his presidency on maintaining Chavez's leftist legacy, said further protests would not be allowed.
"They want to topple the government through violence," he said. "We will not permit any more attacks."
Some 66 people were injured, 70 arrested, some police vehicles torched and government offices vandalized on Wednesday, officials said. Some protesters, many with their faces covered, threw stones and started fires in the streets.
Lopez's party said there were "hundreds of arrests and disappearances", and vowed that demonstrations would continue.
Bolivia, Cuba and Argentina, three of Venezuela's fellow leftist political allies in the region, sent messages of solidarity to Maduro's government.
"Cuba condemns the coup intentions against the constitutional government ... organized by fascist groups," the statement from Havana read.
The protests have exposed differences within Venezuela's opposition leadership, with some favouring a more moderate approach and saying marches that turn violent only play into the government's hands as it then accuses them of being "saboteurs."
The opposition blames armed pro-government militant groups known as "colectivos" for attacking dozens of their marches over the years, scattering their supporters and spreading fear.
"The colectivos are coming!" was a cry heard several times at the opposition's latest rally on Wednesday, prompting some demonstrators to flee for the safety of a nearby Metro station.
One of the dead was a well-known colectivo leader from the militantly "Chavista" January 23 neighbourhood of Caracas.
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.
Wednesday's outburst of violence did point to a widening rift between opposition hardliners and those who favour returning to addressing bread-and-butter issues such as poor services, widespread corruption and one of the world's worst murder rates.
Opposition moderates note that their biggest successes, such as turning pro-Chavez strongholds into opposition territory, have resulted from leaders stepping away from theatrical street protests to focus on voters' daily concerns.
(Additional reporting by Caracas bureau reporters, Javier Lopez in Tachira, Daniel Ramos in La Paz, Daniel Trotta in Havana; Editing by Kieran Murray and Meredith Mazzilli)