CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — In the bubbling cauldron that is politically riven Venezuela, divining the government's motives is a favorite pastime. So as soon as security forces stormed a handful of ramshackle camps that had been the haven for anti-government protesters the past month, Venezuelans immediately began speculating what was behind the surprise raids.
Some viewed it as a straightforward crackdown to restore order in besieged neighborhoods. Others saw an attempt to chill the nerve of student activists and keep them from returning to the streets. And, in a reflection of the country's bitter divisions, some in the opposition called it an effort to revive a waning protest movement as a way to distract Venezuelans from mounting economic woes.
About the only thing certain is that in the aftermath of Thursday's pre-dawn raids, President Nicolas Maduro wanted to project an image of strength and attack his foes. Speaking on national television, as he handed out another batch of homes to poor people, the socialist leader lambasted his opponents and blamed them for the death of a 25-year-old police officer in street violence that erupted after the raids — the first day of deadly clashes in almost a month.
"He was protecting the community of Chacao and was killed vilely by these right-wing assassins," Maduro said, referring to the leafy neighborhood in Caracas where the biggest of the four makeshift protest camps sat in front of the offices of the United Nations. "In the face of this pain, we have to apply the firm hand of justice."
The bloodshed brought to 42 the number of people killed on all sides since protests began roiling the South American nation in February.
During the raids on the camps, 243 young protesters were arrested and carted off to jail. The government later presented what it said were dozens of homemade mortars, guns and Molotov cocktails seized during the operation.
The dismantling of the camps came as protests had lost much of their fervor amid an effort by moderate members of the opposition to sit down with the government and negotiate concessions such as more economic freedom for business, the release of jailed opponents and the filling of vacancies on the Supreme Court and electoral tribunal.
That's a strategy the Obama administration supports, but Venezuelan students and hard-line opposition members are boycotting the talks, which they consider a ploy by Maduro to deflect foreign criticism.
At the same time security forces in Caracas were cleaning up a moonscape of scattered clothes, tents and destroyed banners, U.S. lawmakers in Washington pressed State Department officials to endorse legislation that would ban visas and freeze the assets of Venezuelan officials who crush demonstrations and violate human rights.
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