Mayhem rages in west Venezuela as U.S. imposes more sanctions on 'bad actors'

Mobs looted shops and fought security forces overnight in Venezuela's restive western region, while opposition leader Henrique Capriles was blocked from leaving the country and the U.S. imposed new sanctions.

Opposition leader blocked from UN trip after passport seized

An anti-government protester raises his violin before National Guard members, as he yells not to shoot at protesters, creating a brief pause during clashes in Caracas on Thursday. (Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press)

Mobs looted shops and fought security forces overnight in Venezuela's restive western region, where three soldiers were being charged on Thursday with the fatal shooting of a man who was buying diapers for his baby, witnesses said.

In Washington, the Trump administration is imposing sanctions on members of Venezuela's Supreme Court following a series of rulings that the U.S. says has usurped power from the nation's opposition-controlled Congress and sparked the unrest.

Six weeks of anti-government unrest in Venezuela have resulted in at least 44 deaths, as well as hundreds of injuries and arrests in the worst turmoil of President Nicolas Maduro's four-year rule.

Protesters are demanding elections to kick out the socialist government that they accuse of wrecking the economy and turning Venezuela into a dictatorship. Maduro, 54, the successor to late leader Hugo Chavez, says his foes are seeking a violent coup.

Opposition leader's passport seized

One of Maduro's main opponents, local governor Henrique Capriles, said on Thursday that his passport was confiscated when he was at the airport outside Caracas for a flight to New York, where he was to visit the United Nations and denounce human rights violations.

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles marches during an opposition May Day demonstration in Caracas on May 1. (Fernando Llano/Associated Press)

"My passport is valid until 2020. What they want to do here is avoid us going to the United Nations," Capriles said, before returning to the capital to join a protest march.

The UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, was due to meet with Capriles in New York on Friday.

"Hope [Capriles's] passport removal is not reprisal linked to planned meeting with me tomorrow," Zeid said on Twitter.

The move comes a month after Capriles, a two-time presidential candidate who was seen by many as the opposition's best chance in the presidential election scheduled for 2018, was banned from holding political office for 15 years.

Capriles, a sports-loving lawyer who has tried to shake the opposition's reputation of elitism by focusing on grassroots efforts with poor Venezuelans, narrowly lost the 2013 vote against Maduro, and the two frequently lock horns.

Unrest in the west

Across the country near the border with Colombia, clashes and lootings raged overnight, even though the government sent 2,000 troops to Tachira state.

Workers clean the floor next to empty shelves and refrigerators in a supermarket after it was looted in San Cristobal on Wednesday. (Carlos Eduardo Ramirez/Reuters)

Security forces fired tear gas at stone-throwing gangs, and crowds smashed their way into shops and offices in San Cristobal, the state capital, and elsewhere.

Manuel Castellanos, 46, was shot in the neck on Wednesday when caught in a melee while walking home with diapers he had bought for his son, witnesses said. Diapers have become prized products in Venezuela due to widespread shortages of basic domestic items.

The State Prosecutor's Office said three National Guard sergeants would be charged later on Thursday for their "presumed responsibility" in Castellanos's killing.

Earlier in the week, a 15-year-old was shot dead while out buying flour for his family's dinner.

Most shops in San Cristobal, a traditional hotbed of anti-government militancy, were closed on Thursday, with long lines at the few establishments open.

Anti-government protesters march to the Interior Ministry in Caracas on Wednesday. (Fernando Llano/Associated Press)

In Caracas, protesters sought to march to the Interior and Justice Ministry but were blocked on a major highway by security forces firing tear gas and using armoured vehicles. That sparked now familiar scenes of masked youths brandishing shields and throwing stones at the security line.

U.S. sanctions

International anxiety about the Venezuelan crisis is growing.

The U.S. sanctions, announced Thursday by the Department of Treasury, freeze the assets of eight Venezuelan government officials on the Supreme Court in an effort to support the Venezuelan people "in their efforts to protect and advance democratic governance."

A ruling issued in late March that stripped Venezuela's Congress of its last powers was later reversed amid a storm of criticism, but the anti-government protests have continued.

The U.S. move marks the second round of sanctions the Trump administration has imposed on high-level Venezuelan officials since taking office.

U.S. President Donald Trump and his Colombian counterpart Juan Manuel Santos discussed Venezuela's "deteriorating situation" at a White House meeting on Thursday.

"We will be working with Colombia and other countries on the Venezuela problem," Trump said.

"It is a very, very horrible problem. And from a humanitarian standpoint, it is like nothing we've seen in quite a long time," Trump said.

An anti-government protester wearing a Venezuelan flag picks up a tear gas canister fired by security forces trying to disperse an opposition demonstration in Caracas on Thursday. (Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press)

France called for mediation amid the worsening situation, and Britain warned its citizens against "all but essential travel" to Venezuela.

Marco Rubio praises sanctions

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio is praising the Trump administration's sanctions. In a statement Thursday, Rubio said that the sanctions make it clear to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro "and his thugs that their actions are not going to go unpunished."

The Florida Republican represents the state with the largest number of Venezuelans living in the United States, many of whom strongly oppose Maduro's socialist government.

Rubio said he hopes Trump will impose further sanctions in the future.

With files from The Associated Press