CARACAS: Venezuelan riot police fired tear gas Wednesday to stop anti-government protesters from marching on central Caracas, the latest clash in a wave of unrest that has left 26 people dead.
In scenes that have been playing out all month in the crisis-wracked country, police also fired water cannon to force back demonstrators on a highway on the capital's east side.
Masked protesters throwing Molotov cocktails managed to briefly set fire to the windshield of an armored police truck, but they did not hold their ground for long as the security forces advanced.
The demonstrators vowed to keep up their protests demanding early elections to replace President Nicolas Maduro.
"We will keep doing this every day," said 20-year-old student Andres Gonzalez, who wore a gas mask and a helmet.
The opposition accuses the government of using the security forces to repress peaceful protests, and of sending gun-toting thugs to attack them.
The government in turn accuses the opposition of paying armed agitators to stir up violence.
Central Caracas is a pro-Maduro bastion and the seat of government, and previous attempts to march there have also degenerated into clashes between police and protesters.
Senior opposition leader Henrique Capriles accused the authorities of "savage repression," ahead of Wednesday's march.
"We are going to resist. We are going to persist. We will not surrender," he said.
The center-right opposition blames Maduro for severe shortages of food, medicine and other essentials in the oil-rich country, and wants general elections to exit the crisis.
Twenty-six people including four minors have died in violence sparked by the current wave of protests, which began on April 1, according to the attorney general.
Maduro put the figure at 29 deaths, without giving details.
"We will defeat violence and this coup d'etat," he said Tuesday in a speech.
The ruling socialist party called on Maduro's supporters to stage their own "revolutionary youth" march to the presidential palace.
Rights groups voice alarm
Maduro, the heir of the leftist "Bolivarian revolution" launched by the late Hugo Chavez in 1999, says the shortages and the protests are part of a US-backed plot to topple him.
The crisis deepened late last month when the Supreme Court moved to seize power from the National Assembly, the only lever of state authority Maduro and his allies do not control.
The court partly backtracked after an international outcry. But the opposition was further galvanized when authorities banned Capriles from politics.
In just under a month of unrest, more than 400 people have been injured, and nearly 1,300 arrested, the attorney general said.
That includes 14 arrested journalists, their union said Tuesday, condemning the figure as "alarming."
More than 100 journalists have been assaulted while covering the protests, it added, accusing the national guard of "harassing, beating and intimidating" reporters.
Watchdog group Reporters Without Borders on Wednesday ranked Venezuela 137th out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index.
Rights group Amnesty International for its part urged the government to stop the "persecution" and "arbitrary detention" of protesters.
Venezuela threatens OAS exit
The opposition said it would try to march on the offices of the national ombudsman, Tarek William Saab, whom it accuses of betraying his duty to defend Venezuelans' human rights.
The Organization of American States has meanwhile called an extraordinary meeting on the Venezuelan crisis Wednesday. OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro has previously described Maduro as a "dictator."
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez, however, warned that Maduro has given orders to begin the process of withdrawing from the regional group if the OAS ups the ante by calling a meeting of foreign ministers to discuss the Venezuelan crisis.
Falling prices for Venezuela's crucial oil exports have slashed its revenues, leading to critical shortages and looting.
The country suffered its last major wave of unrest in 2014, when 43 people were killed in anti-government riots.