The Venezuelan military planned to send additional troops to a border region where unrest has been particularly fierce, officials said.
The move came as the government faced growing criticism for its heavy-handed attempt to subdue a protest movement with night-time sweeps that have turned many parts of the country into dangerous free-fire zones.
Interior minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres said a battalion of paratroopers would be dispatched to the state of Tachira, on the western border with Colombia, where protesters have clashed with police and National Guard units, bringing the capital city, San Cristobal, to a halt.
“These units will enable the city to function, so food can get in, so people can go about their normal lives,” he said. “It’s simply meant to restore order.”
Members of the opposition have claimed the government of President Nicolas Maduro is leaning too heavily on the military as well as police and civilian militias to squash opposition to his socialist government.
San Cristobal vice mayor Sergio Vergara, an opposition member, said the government had already cut off vital services, including public transport and the Internet, to crack down on what had been peaceful protests against a government of a country that is rich in oil but struggling with inflation above 56% and one of the world’s highest murder rates.
The presence of some 3,000 troops in a city of 600,000, he said, is “effectively part of an effort at repression being played out by the government across the country”.
Violence has been escalating across Venezuela since a February 12 opposition rally that turned violent and left three people dead. Since then, there have been at least three more deaths as well as dozens of injuries and arrests.
Police, National Guard troops and members of private militias have swarmed through streets in the capital and elsewhere firing volleys, at times indiscriminately, in repeated spasms of night-time violence in recent days.
Henrique Capriles, the two-time presidential candidate of an opposition coalition, said the government has engaged in “brutal repression” as it goes after students and other protesters, in some cases breaking into apartment buildings to arrest those it accuses of taking part in an attempted coup.
“What does the government want, a civil war?” he asked at a news conference.
While several large demonstrations by thousands of people have been peaceful, smaller groups of protesters have lobbed gas bombs and rocks and blocked streets with flaming barricades of trash.
Troops and police have responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and blasts from water cannons – as well as raids by gun-firing men on motorcycle.
Jose Leon, a 20-year-old business student who took part in a demonstration in the Altamira neighbourhood of Caracas on Wednesday night, said authorities who roughly detained students and fired tear gas over-reacted to a peaceful protest.
“We’ve spent years trying for peaceful dialogue. How can you talk with a government that hunts down its own citizens like criminals?” he said as he took part in a small protest yesterday.
The clashes with authorities as well as the pursuit of anti-government activists by troops and militias take place in darkness.
During the day, the capital has largely operated as normal, with businesses and schools open and people going about their business, while stocking up on groceries in case of further unrest.
President Maduro and his supporters say the escalating protests against his socialist government in the oil-rich but economically struggling country are part of an attempted coup sponsored by right-wing and “fascist” opponents in Venezuela and abroad, particularly the US.
He has vowed to crack down on the protests, particularly in Tachira, where the unrest has been particularly strong.
The interior ministry said yesterday it would send a battalion of paratroopers there to the area restore order.
Earlier yesterday, a judge ruled there was enough evidence to detain Leopoldo Lopez, the opposition leader who surrendered to authorities a day earlier, on charges that include arson and criminal incitement stemming from the February 12 rally.
Prosecutors decided not to pursue more serious charges, including murder and terrorism at a court appearance on a military base outside Caracas. The 42-year-old politician could face at least 10 years in prison.
In a message from his Twitter account, the opposition leader’s wife, Lilian Tintori, urged his followers on as she announced the court decision. “Change is within us all,” she wrote on his behalf. “Don’t give up. I will not.”
Termina la audiencia. Ratificada medida privativa d libertad. El cambio esta en cada uno d nosotros. No se rindan. Yo no lo hare/LT— Leopoldo López (@leopoldolopez) February 20, 2014
The opposition is planning marches across the country tomorrow to protest against the jailing of Mr Lopez as well as the rampant crime, shortages of consumer goods and inflation rate.