CARACAS, Venezuela – Security forces on Monday took control of a Caracas plaza and surrounding neighborhoods that have become the center of anti-government protests that have shaken the country for a month.
Clusters of National Guardsmen patrolled Plaza Altamira and the principal streets extending from it while dozens of green-vested workers swept up debris that protesters used to block streets in the middle- and upper-class neighborhood of eastern Caracas.
Another branch of the National Guard patrolled surrounding neighborhoods on motorcycles.
The graceful sloping plaza in the capital's Chacao borough has become the focal point of student-led protests that have devolved each afternoon into violent clashes with tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons and Molotov cocktails. Only a small segment of the demonstrators stick around for the skirmishes.
"We're deployed since 3 a.m. in the entire municipality," Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres said in an interview with state television. "We're re-establishing the right of thousands of citizens of Chacao who have been forced to stay inside their homes by violent actions."
General Manuel Quevedo, the National Guard's regional head in the capital, blamed a small group for trying to impose itself on the majority of people who want to live in peace in the area.
"With this situation we assure that every day the plaza is going to stay this way — calm, in peace," Quevedo said in a television interview from the plaza.
President Nicolas Maduro warned protesters in a speech Saturday that they had only hours to clear Plaza Altamira or security forces would enter. Maduro referred to the demonstrators as "los Chuckys," a reference to a diabolical doll in a U.S horror film series. There were clashes on the plaza Saturday and Sunday night as usual, but early Monday morning security forces entered the plaza with the apparent intention of staying.
Maduro and his ministers had previously criticized the mayor of Chacao, Ramon Muchacho, for not maintaining control of his municipality. Muchacho said via his Twitter account that Chacao awoke "militarized" Monday. He wrote that the protests are not the problem, but the consequence. "The militarization doesn't resolve the crisis nor the discontent."
The protests initiated by students have been joined by tens of thousands of Venezuelans, mostly from the middle class, who are fed up with inflation that hit 56 percent last year, soaring violent crime and shortages of basic necessities such as corn flour and cooking oil.
Early Monday, Aragua state Gov. Tareck El Aissami announced via his Twitter account that National Guard Capt. Jose Guillen Araque was shot in the head Sunday night during violence in the city some 75 miles (125 kilometers) southwest of Caracas. El Aissami gave no details, but said the captain was "killed by fascist groups," phrasing officials often apply to protesters.
Prior to Araque's death, the government had identified 25 deaths related to more than a month of protests in Venezuela. He would be the fourth National Guardsmen killed.
Associated Press writer Fabiola Sanchez contributed to this report from Valencia.