CARACAS, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Venezuelan troops blocked students during marches against President Nicolas Maduro on Thursday as pro-government supporters also rallied on the anniversary of 2014 protests that led to 43 deaths.
National Guard soldiers and police used teargas in the volatile western city of San Cristobal against student demonstrators who tossed rocks and Molotov cocktails.
Five security officials and three demonstrators were hurt in the standoff, and four students arrested, witnesses and authorities said.
In Caracas, troops cordoned off scores of students on an unauthorized march to a church where they planned a mass in honor of demonstrators who died. Instead, a priest came out and said brief prayers in the open-air.
Also in the capital, thousands of red-clad supporters of Maduro, the successor to late socialist leader Hugo Chavez who died of cancer in 2013, held a much larger rival rally.
Mindful of nearly four months of clashes last year, when thousands of protesters took to the streets demanding Maduro’s resignation and protesting over the OPEC nation’s faltering economy, some Caracas residents stayed at home to avoid trouble.
“We are marching peacefully to honor those who fell,” said Fabio Valentini, 21, a pro-opposition student from Andres Bello Catholic University who was on the streets last year when the first victims were shot dead.
“Venezuela, today, is in a far worse situation than last year. The economy is in crisis. Crime is worse. Our aim is not to topple the regime, but to demand rights and changes to failed policies.”
Maduro says opposition radicals sought to carry out a coup in 2014, and still harbor the same ambition, including via an “economic war”.
Venezuelans are suffering shortages, long shopping lines, high inflation, and a recession exacerbated by the plunge in crude revenues.
“Oil prices will rise again and we’ll be ok,” said Javier Castillo, 20, a student at the Bolivarian University among thousands of singing, dancing and banner-waving Maduro supporters at the rally in Plaza Venezuela.
“We on the Left are people of peace, happiness and harmony. Those on the far Right are the ones seeking violence. Let those bitter mummy’s and daddy’s boys come here and see the joy.”
Jailed protest leader Leopoldo Lopez, who spearheaded last year’s protests before being arrested, sent a message from jail.
“The fight continues,” he said via a Twitter account run by his wife. “If you tire, you lose.”
Both the government and opposition supporters blame each other for the 2014 deaths. Security officials, Maduro supporters and protesters were among the victims. (Additional reporting by Jorge Silva in Caracas, Javier Farias in San Cristobal; editing by Diane Craft)