Two students were shot dead as tens of thousands of opponents of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro flooded the streets of Caracas on Wednesday in what's been dubbed the "mother of all marches" against the embattled socialist.
Carlos Romero, just three days away from celebrating his 18th birthday, was walking home from a soccer game when he bumped into pro-government militias stalking a small pocket of protesters, a close family friend, Melvin Sojo, told The Associated Press at the hospital where doctors tried in vain to save the boy's life.
Sojo, who grew up in the Romero home, said police and two people who rushed Romero to the hospital told him the boy had been shot in the head by pro-government groups. Official confirmation of Sojo's account was not immediately available, and the country's energy minister said the boy was killed during an attempted assault.
A 23-year-old woman identified as Paola Ramirez was killed by gunfire from pro-government groups circling protesters in the western city of San Cristobal, the town's mayor told The Associated Press. There were no other details immediately available.
As well, a National Guard sergeant was killed by a sniper during "violent protests" in Miranda state and a colonel was injured, the human rights ombudsman Tarek Saab tweeted on Wednesday night.
The deaths on Wednesday mean at least eight have been killed since protests began three weeks ago over the Supreme Court's decision to strip the opposition-controlled congress of its last remaining powers after a yearlong power battle.
Energy Minister Luis Motta Dominguez told lines of state workers preparing to join a large countermarch that the reports of the boy's death at the hands of pro-government groups were false, saying he had been killed during a botched assault, and that they would have to use all their political weaponry to combat the lies of Maduro's "fascist" opponents.
"We're a peaceful people, but we're also armed," he said.
Tens of thousands of angry protesters converged from 26 different points spread across the capital to attempt to march downtown to the ombudsman's office.
Like a half-dozen times previously, their progress was blocked by light-armoured vehicles and a curtain of tear gas and rubber bullets fired by riot police officers. In some areas, caravans of government supporters, some of them armed, circled menacingly on motorcycles.
Food shortages, inflation fuel protests
The Supreme Court's decision was later reversed amid overwhelming international rebuke and even a rare instance of public dissent in the normally disciplined ruling elite.
But it had the added effect of energizing Venezuela's fractious opposition, which had been struggling to channel growing disgust with Maduro over widespread food shortages, triple-digit inflation and rampant crime.
With its momentum renewed, the opposition is now pushing for Maduro's removal and the release of scores of political prisoners. The government last year abruptly postponed regional elections the opposition was heavily favoured to win, and cut off a petition drive to force a referendum seeking Maduro's removal before elections late next year.
Opposition marchers included Liliana Machuca, who earns about $20 a month holding two jobs teaching literature. Her face was covered in a white, sticky substance to protect herself from the noxious effects of tear gas.
Although she doesn't expect change overnight, she said protesting is the only option she has after what she says are abuses committed by the government.
"This is like a chess game and each side is moving whatever pieces they can.… We'll see who tires out first," she said.
A short block away, a sea of red-shirted government supporters marched by calmly, some dancing to a salsa band that tried to provide an air of normalcy to the otherwise tense political standoff that has paralyzed Venezuela the past few weeks.
Many were state workers, like Leidy Marquez, who was bused in from Tachira state, on the other side of the country, along with co-workers at state-run oil giant PDVSA.
"The opposition is trying to provoke a conflict but they aren't going to achieve their goal," said Marquez, wearing a shirt emblazoned with the eyes of Hugo Chavez, the country's deceased former president who is a symbol of revolutionary zeal throughout Venezuela.
The government has tried to recover from the near-daily protests with its own show of force: jailing hundreds of demonstrators, barring former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles from running for office and standing by as pro-government groups violently attack opposition members of congress.
President alleges coup plot
The president also signed orders on TV late Tuesday activating the "green phase" of enigmatic military plans to defend Venezuela against what he describes as U.S.-backed attempts to sow chaos and overthrow him.
He also said authorities in recent hours had rounded up unnamed members of an underground cell of conspirators at Caracas hotels, including some armed people who were allegedly planning to stir up violence at the march.
Maduro didn't provide evidence to back his claim that a coup attempt was underway, and the opposition rejected his comments as a desperate attempt to intimidate Venezuelans from exercising their constitutional right to protest.
"We're convinced the country knows who the true coup mongers are, and it's against them we will march," the opposition said in a Tuesday late-night statement.
Foreign governments are also warning about the increasingly bellicose rhetoric and repressive stance of the government.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday he's concerned that Maduro's government is violating its own constitution and that he's watching the situation closely.
General Motors announced that it will immediately cease operations in Venezuela after its assets were seized by public authorities.
Maduro this week said he was dramatically expanding civilian militias created by Chavez and giving each member a gun.
There was also concern that Wednesday's duelling marches could lead to clashes after the No. 2 socialist leader, Diosdado Cabello, said 60,000 die-hard government supporters would circulate on motorcycles to prevent the opposition from reaching its planned destination.
In the past, the groups known as collectives have operated like shock troops firing on protesters as security forces stand by.
"Those responsible for the criminal repression of peaceful democratic activity, for the undermining of democratic institutions and practices and for gross violations of human rights will be held individually accountable for their actions by the Venezuelan people and their institutions, as well as by the international community," the U.S. State Department said in a statement Tuesday.