Tension rose another notch in Venezuela Thursday, where the country’s attorney general sharply defied President Nicolas Maduro one day after a mob stormed the National Assembly and attacked opposition legislators.
The show of public dissent from a high-ranking official suggests a split in the socialist administration and eroding support for the embattled president, whose volatile oil-exporting nation has been shaken by a wave of anti-government protests.
At least 91 people have died in three months of demonstrations, prosecutors say.
Protesters blame Maduro for Venezuela’s desperate economic crisis. He blames the chaos on a US-backed conspiracy.
Riots were reported in different parts of Caracas overnight, hours after Katherine Haringhton — recently named deputy attorney general and seen as Attorney General Luisa Ortega’s replacement if the court fires her — showed up unexpectedly at the AG’s headquarters.
Ortega denied her entry.
The Supreme Court designated Haringhton to the post, a move that is “unconstitutional, illegal and illegitimate” because only the National Assembly can name people to such positions, Ortega said in a statement.
Ortega, 59, the most senior figure to defy Maduro, has accused the pro-government Supreme Court of undermining democracy through a short-lived ruling that seized power from the opposition-led legislature.
As violence swelled, Ortega accused police of killing protesters — comments that enraged Maduro, who slammed her as a traitor.
Ortega also accused Maduro of violating the constitution with his plan to hold an unelected special assembly to rewrite the document.
“I am committed to enforce the laws. This is not an outlaw state,” said Haringhton, who said she was sure that Ortega would reconsider her stance once things calmed down.
– Tear gassing the mall –
On Thursday protesters tried to march on the Supreme Court, but riot police pushed them back and even chased some fleeing demonstrators into a huge shopping mall, where they fired tear gas.
A total of 45 people in the mall, including 17 children, received emergency medical treatment after the incident, said Ramon Muchacho, mayor of the Caracas district Chacao, which is an opposition stronghold.
“We came here to get an ice cream and see a movie, and look at this disaster,” said teenager Alejandra Vargas, her eyes red from the tear gas. Nearby, a woman carrying a baby was escorted out by firefighters.
Protester Rosa Rivas, 43, taking part in the rally with her 15-year-old daughter, said when police forced the crowd to disperse, some fled into the mall, either through the main entrance or a parking garage.
“But they chased us. People were running for their lives,” Rivas told AFP. The entire mall — which contains 531 stores — was later evacuated as a precaution.
The violence came a day after one of the most stunning episodes in months of unrest: a pro-government, club-wielding mob overrunning the National Assembly.
The mob beat opposition lawmakers, injuring seven, as police stood by and watched.
The crowd then stood guard outside the building for nine hours, screaming insults at lawmakers and preventing them from leaving until police finally intervened and set up a security cordon to let them out.
Maduro condemned the assault and promised an investigation, but did not publicly acknowledge the intruders were his supporters.
The attack drew condemnation from the United States, France, the European Union and the Organization of American States.
Maduro, a former bus driver handpicked by the late socialist firebrand Hugo Chavez as his successor, is wildly unpopular among everyday people but retains the key support of the military.
“Today it makes more sense to take to the streets after the paramillitary assault that they carried out on Congress,” said David Smolansky opposition mayor of a Caracas neighborhood