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Chavez backers, protesters clash in Venezuela

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Supporters of the late President Hugo Chavez wielding rocks and bottles attacked student protesters on Thursday as they marched against perceived bias by Venezuela’s electoral council.

The attack left at least 10 students reported injured and raised tensions in a country already sharply divided ahead of next month’s presidential election.

Hundreds of students were marching to the electoral council in downtown Caracas when they came upon a police barricade. About 100 Chavez supporters quickly gathered behind the barricade and began throwing objects at the approaching students. A few of the students lobbed the rocks and bottles back at the other side. Several Chavez supporters pulled one student to the ground and repeatedly kicked him.

Police tear gas scattered most of the students, leaving approximately 100 protesters in the street. Splinter groups of Chavez supporters tried to attack them from side streets, but were repelled by police shooting plastic bullets.

“The government supporters have ambushed us,” student leader Vilcar Fernandez told The Associated Press.

It was unclear how many people had been injured, but student leader activist Francisco Rodriguez said at least 10 people from his side had been hurt, most of them hit with rocks.

At one point, about 100 students were trapped by Chavistas who had blocked all the surrounding streets, preventing them from immediately leaving. Police later escorted the students out of the area.

The protesters were demanding the electoral council eliminate requirements that voters have their fingerprints recorded before voting and that it prevent the government from seizing television and radio airwaves at will to let Chavez’s chosen successor Nicolas Maduro, the country’s acting leader, to promote his candidacy.

They were also demanding that Defense Minister Diego Molero, who has publicly voiced support for Maduro, step down from his post.

The constitution forbids the military from taking sides in politics, although soldiers are permitted to vote.

Maduro is competing against opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who has strongly criticized the electoral council for failing to stop government institutions from favoring Maduro ahead of the April 14 vote.

“We are here to demand fair and clean elections,” said Juan Urdaneta, a student leader who traveled hundreds of miles (kilometers) from the western state of Zulia to participate in the demonstration.

Earlier, the protesters marched behind a sound truck playing the national anthem into downtown Caracas, chanting and blowing plastic horns. The election council sits in a neighborhood claimed by Chavez supporters, who have attacked anti-government demonstrations there in the past.

“It’s not fair that the National Electoral Council allow such privileges for Maduro,” complained student activist Enzo Colaicoro.

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