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June 24, 2017

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Chavez day marked by parade, clashes, diplomatic spat

CARACAS--Venezuela marked the first anniversary of Hugo Chavez's death Wednesday with a blend of solemn ceremonies, clashes and a break in relations with Panama over protests dogging his successor's presidency.

President Nicolas Maduro led a military parade with tanks, fighter jets and elite troops before a ceremony next to his mentor's marble tomb in former barracks that sit atop a Caracas slum.

Soldiers fired a cannon salvo at the hour of Chavez's death, 4:25 p.m., from the Mountain Barracks that have become a pilgrimage site for his fervent leftist supporters.

But the commemorations were marred by new clashes in the capital's eastern middle-class district into the late evening, hours after hundreds of anti-government students marched in the latest show of discontent in a month of demonstrations.

About 200 national guard troops, backed by six armored trucks, launched tear gas and fired birdshot at dozens of hard-line protesters, who lobbed firebombs after blocking streets with concrete blocks and burning trash.

Some people threw stones from buildings, prompting the national guardsmen to fire tear gas into high-rises.

There were no immediate reports of injuries or arrests.

At least 18 people have died since early February during anti-government protests that Maduro has denounced as a U.S.-backed plot by "fascists" to overthrow him.

The protests have posed the biggest challenge yet to Maduro's young presidency, though analysts say his government remains sturdy enough to withstand the pressure.

Break with Panama

Standing next to the Chavez tomb, Maduro railed against the Washington-based Organization of American States and declared that he was breaking relations with Panama over its request for an OAS meeting about Venezuela's unrest on Thursday.

"Nobody will conspire with impunity to ask for an intervention against our fatherland. Enough!" Maduro thundered as leftist presidents Raul Castro of Cuba, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and Evo Morales of Bolivia looked on.

He called Panama's President Ricardo Martinelli a "lackey" of the United States.

The small nation's foreign ministry rejected the "unacceptable insults," saying they should not serve as a "smoke screen that aims to deny (Venezuela's) own reality."

Alleging another domestic plot, Maduro announced an unspecified number of arrests of people he accused of trying to commit sabotage on bridges and highways.

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