Venezuela official warns against police use of force as death toll hits 55

Protesters force tank's retreat in Caracas

A group of anti-government protesters force a police tank's retreat after a confrontation on a highway in Caracas, Venezuela on May 1, 2017.
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A group of anti-government protesters force a police tank's retreat after a confrontation on a highway in Caracas, Venezuela on May 1, 2017.

Gunshots, electrocutions, suffocation, traffic accidents, tear gas and one frozen water bottle to the head.

The last eight weeks of anti-government protests in Venezuela have killed at least 55 people, authorities confirmed Wednesday, amid chaotic violence that threatens to destabilize the South American nation.

In a press conference, Venezuela’s chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega Díaz provided the most detailed breakdown yet of the toll from massive demonstrations that began April 1.

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According to a report issued by her office, the vast majority of those who have died during the protests — 38 — were killed by gunshots and projectiles. In at least eight of those cases, security forces are either being investigated or are the prime suspects. And in three instances, it was security officers who were the victims.

An additional eight people died due to electrocution as they were looting a bakery last month. Four died due to traffic accidents — sometimes trying to avoid opposition barricades. One man, who had a pre-existing medical condition, died of tear gas inhalation, and one woman died after being hit in the head with a frozen bottle of water.

A video which has circulated through social media, shows a young man playing a violin during an anti-government protest in Venezuela.

Many of the dead were in their 20s and a dozen were teenagers, including Brayan David Principal, 14, who was shot by unknown assailants.

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Ortega, who has emerged as a voice of mild dissent within the socialist administration, said her office was investigating “each and every case” and she cautioned security forces to use restraint and refrain from shooting tear-gas canisters directly at protesters. According to The Associated Press, Ortega confirmed that about half of the deaths were due to the actions of riot police and soldiers.

The grim accounting comes as Venezuela’s opposition is rejecting government plans to hold overdue regional elections and overhaul the constitution.

On Tuesday, the National Electoral Council said it would be holding elections to choose members of a constitutional assembly that would meet as early as July. It also said that regional elections, which were supposed to take place last year, will be held Dec. 10. But on Wednesday, key oppositions leaders said the only way to stop the protests was for President Nicolás Maduro to leave office before his tenure ends in January 2019.

Video captures the moment a woman refused to move out of the way of a police tank during a violent protest in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas on April 19, 2017.

“The problem isn’t the constitution. The problem is the person who is violating it and who has no respect for the rights of Venezuelans,” said Henrique Capriles, an opposition governor who has been leading protests.

Elias Jaua, who is spearheading the government’s efforts to call the constitutional assembly, said it was the only way to combat “imperial aggression” and “social and racial hatred.”

Read More: Protesters demand elections, government offers new constitution

The 540 representatives to reform the country’s 1999 constitution will be chosen based on geography and eight social sectors, including farmers, indigenous groups and the disabled. Absent from the mix are political parties — the bastions of the opposition.

Analysts say the process is designed to over-represent the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, and will only fuel tensions.

The unfair playing field “will only deepen the ongoing crisis by providing a rallying cry for the opposition,” wrote Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst with the New York-based Eurasia Group.

“Vested interests in the status quo and the government’s willingness to use repression mean that the current conflict could very well be prolonged,” she added. “But the confluence of a united opposition, a divided chavismo, a deepening economic crisis and mounting international pressure mean that conditions are ripe for regime change, which could also happen in a matter of weeks.”

Follow Jim Wyss on Twitter @jimwyss