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Hundreds on Venezuela streets in support of government

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Venezuela's government, in the midst of its deepest and deadliest crisis to date, rallied hundreds of supporters Sunday to Caracas's streets.

Groups of mainly elderly people marched Sunday in downtown Caracas in support of President Nicolas Maduro, a day after Venezuela's largest demonstrations in weeks of escalating protests left 25 people injured.

Maduro is grappling with the biggest crisis of his government since narrowly being elected last year after the death of leftist icon Hugo Chavez, with at least 10 people dead since protests erupted on February 4.

Hundreds of thousands of pro- and anti-government protesters hit the streets of the capital on Saturday, leading to night-time clashes with security forces that were some of the most serious to date.

Student and opposition demonstrators are campaigning over bleak economic prospects, including a shortage of food and commodities, repression by police and a dire job market. Dozens of people, including opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, have been arrested or wounded.

Pro-government demonstrators Sunday dressed in red -- the color of the socialist administration -- held Venezuelan flags and pro-Maduro banners, protesting what they called "fascist violence" by student opposition.

"That's enough youth violence. This is a country of peace. We want a future of peace," Cristina Marcos, 60, told reporters during a rally that began in the morning at the Plaza Bolivar and headed towards the Miraflores Palace, where the president was expected to give a speech.

Of the 25 people hurt in the late-night unrest in Caracas's posh Chacao municipality, 14 were wounded from buckshot before protesters were dispersed using gas and birdshot, the Chacao mayor said Sunday.

- Tensions soar higher amid deaths -

Competing mass rallies in the capital are laying 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.

The protests -- which began in the western city of San Cristobal led by students angry over the soaring crime rate -- have increasingly been accompanied by violence and attempts to intimidate protesters and the media.

In Caracas, there have also been incidents of men on pick-up trucks, escorted by motorbikes intimidating protesters.

Now the government is scrambling to try to blunt what it sees as international and social media portrayals of his elected government as a bad guy due to its security forces' behavior with demonstrators, analysts say.

Saturday, Maduro who denies any links to armed pro-government groups, unveiled a new peace initiative -- a week after a national public safety strategy he announced was overtaken by the protests.

"I am calling on the Venezuelan people to join me Wednesday in a national peace conference with all the country's political sectors ... so we Venezuelans can try to neutralize violent groups," he said.

Maduro insists the protests are part of a "coup d'etat in development" instigated by Washington and conservative ex-Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, who is considered close to the United States.

The president also ordered the arrest of a retired general. Angel Vivas, saying he had ties to the violence that marred the protests. Vivas said on Twitter he was resisting arrest.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/140223/hundreds-venezuela-streets-support-government-0