MARACAIBO, Venezuela – Hundreds of people were evacuated from buildings in this big coastal city in western Venezuela on Monday after security forces fired tear gas during a clash with protesters and the gas spilled into homes, schools and a hospital.
The protest turned violent when demonstrators were blocked by national guardsmen while trying to deliver a letter expressing their disdain for socialist President Nicolas Maduro's push to rewrite the nation's constitution.
Protesters tried to get around the officers by finding another route but were pushed back by heavy clouds of tear gas in a raucous exchange that continued for more than an hour, witnesses said.
Juan Diego Amado, an anti-government activist, said he entered one building housing a foundation housing about 300 children and elderly residents and found many coughing and in tears after inhaling the fumes.
Volunteers rushed children still in diapers, others in strollers and the elderly in wheelchairs out of the building to hospitals for treatment. Amado said he helped about four children get to clear air, describing the image of them gasping to breathe as "heartbreaking for anyone."
The clash came as Venezuelans unhappy with food shortages, triple-digit inflation and high crime were out in the streets again Monday after more than a month of protests demanding elections. The unrest began after the Supreme Court stripped congress of its last powers, a decision it later reversed amid a torrent of international criticism.
Tensions have heightened since Maduro began a push last week to hold a special assembly to rewrite the constitution. Opposition leaders charge the move is a ploy to keep the president and his allies in power.
At least 38 people have been killed and more than 750 injured in the unrest.
Continued protests in Venezuela's capital Monday resulted in 60 people being injured, said Ramon Muchacho, a Caracas-area mayor.
Meanwhile, at the presidential palace, government officials met with political and religious leaders to discuss the planned constitutional assembly. Key opposition leaders refused to participate, contending that Maduro does not have the authority to call for a constitution rewrite without first putting the initiative to a vote by the general public.
Associated Press writer Christine Armario in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.