VALENCIA, Venezuela (AP) — A university student beauty queen was mourned Friday in the provincial Venezuelan city where she was slain this week during a political protest, a victim of what government opponents say is indiscriminate violence used by President Nicolas Maduro and his supporters to stifle dissent across the country.
Family members and friends of 22-year-old Genesis Carmona say the former Miss Tourism 2013 for the central Venezuelan state of Carabobo was shot down by members of the armed militias known as "colectivos" who opened fire on a demonstration in Valencia on Tuesday.
The government says the incident is under investigation, and Maduro said at a news conference Friday that it has been "well-established" by ballistics experts that shot came from the opposition protesters. Mourners at the private Mass and graveside memorial for Carmona said they have no doubt which side fired the fatal round.
"She wanted to support her country and, well, look what it cost her for going out with a flag and a whistle. Killed by government mercenaries," said Jose Gil, an uncle of Carmona.
The violence drew condemnation Friday from U.S. based watchdog group Human Rights Watch, which said "Venezuelan security forces have used excessive and unlawful force against protesters on multiple occasions since February 12, 2014, including beating detainees and shooting at crowds of unarmed people."
The report also said "the government has censored the news media, blocking transmission of a TV channel and threatening to prosecute news outlets for their coverage of the violence."
The U.S. news channel CNN said Friday four of its journalists were notified by the Information Ministry that they are no longer allowed to report in the country. They include CNN en Espanol anchor Patricia Janiot.
The U.S. State Department also issued a warning Friday to U.S. citizens in Venezuela to "maintain a low profile and to avoid all areas of civil disruption."
Later, Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement criticizing Venezuela's government for confronting protesters with force, imprisoning students, limiting freedoms of expression and assembly and revoking the credentials of CNN en Espanol reporters, among other things.
"This is not how democracies behave," Kerry said, urging all sides, including the protesters, to refrain from violence.
Maduro has insisted that the protesters are "fascist" elements intent on fomenting a coup and pledged to crack down. On Thursday, a judge determined there was enough evidence to detain opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who surrendered to authorities a day earlier. The charges against Lopez include arson and criminal incitement related to a massive Feb. 12 rally.
Speaking Friday to international media, Maduro called out what he said was a "campaign of demonization to isolate the Bolivarian revolution."
People at Carmona's service who were also at Tuesday's rally said they saw a group of up to 50 men on motorcycles, armed with handguns fire directly into the crowd of about 3,000 demonstrators, setting off a panicked stampede through the street.
"We were protesting peacefully and this was like a war," said Emilio Morillo, an 18-year-old university student.
Kendry Gill, 22-year-old law student also at the rally, said nine people were shot, including a young woman who remains hospitalized in critical condition with a perforated lung.
"It was practically an ambush," Gill said. "We're peaceful. We don't have any weapons."
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