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Venezuelans protest en masse as death toll rises

CARACAS--Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets of Caracas in marches for and against President Nicolas Maduro's government Saturday, as the nation's massive divide became ever more visible.

The protests — which began on Feb. 4 — are seen as the biggest test yet to socialist leader Maduro since he succeeded late leftist icon Hugo Chavez last year, with the country's economic problems at the heart of often bloody scenes that have left 10 people dead and scores injured.

Saturday's competing mass rallies in the capital laid bare a chasm between those who support Maduro and those who oppose him, in an oil-rich country that despite having the world's largest proven reserves is grappling with basic goods shortages, rampant inflation and violent crime.

Just 24 hours after Maduro made a rare offer to U.S. President Barack Obama of talks to end more than a decade of enmity, there appeared no prospect of rapprochement after Secretary of State John Kerry hit out at the Venezuelan government's handling of the protests.

Heeding the call of opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who narrowly lost to Maduro in the election to succeed Chavez last year, at least 50,000 anti-government protesters streamed into several avenues in the Caracas neighborhood of Sucre.

With some sporting Guy Fawkes masks or faces painted in the colors of the Venezuelan flag, they demanded the disarming of groups accused of intimidating and even attacking demonstrators.

“The state should stop these paramilitary groups,” said the head of the main opposition coalition, Ramon Guillermo Aveledo. “It is unacceptable that there are armed groups that are out of control.”

Others accused Maduro and late leader Chavez for allowing the economy to tailspin and for failing to tackle street crime and corruption.

Rival Protests Reflect Split

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A man carries a woman affected by tear gas launched by riot police at anti-government protesters in Caracas, Venezuela on Saturday, Feb. 22.

(AP)

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