CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Supporters of the late President Hugo Chavez hurled rocks and bottles Thursday in an attack on student protesters who were marching against perceived bias by Venezuela's electoral council.
Seven students were reported injured in the violence that raised tensions in a country already sharply divided ahead of next month's presidential election.
Hundreds of students had gathered at a central plaza in the morning and were making their way to the electoral council headquarters in downtown Caracas when they came upon a police barricade.
About 100 Chavez supporters had gathered behind the barricade in the middle of broad Avenida Universidad and began throwing rocks and bottles at the approaching students. A few students lobbed the objects back, setting off a fierce volley between the two sides. At one point, several Chavez supporters pulled a student to the ground and repeatedly kicked him.
National police fired tear gas and scattered most of the students, but some 100 remained behind, left vulnerable to splinter groups of Chavez supporters who attacked from side streets. Police shooting plastic bullets ultimately repelled the attackers.
"The government supporters have ambushed us," student leader Vilcar Fernandez told The Associated Press.
At one point, about 100 students were trapped by Chavistas who had blocked all the surrounding streets, preventing them from leaving. Many of the attackers wore T-shirts bearing the image of the late president and were chanting pro-Chavez slogans.
Police later escorted the students out of the area.
"It wasn't our intention to confront or provoke violent acts, but the violence appeared because of minuscule groups that were sent to sabotage a legitimate protest," said student leader Gaby Arellano. She said seven were injured, including one with a serious wound to the eye.
The election council sits in a neighborhood claimed by Chavez supporters, who have attacked anti-government demonstrations there in the past.
Later Thursday, pro-Chavez activist Luis Arreaza told TV reporters that his group had mobilized to defend the electoral council from attack.
"The people went out on the streets to defend their institution," Arreaza said from the election council. "The students came with the intention of refusing to recognize the electoral work and to delegitimize it."
The protesters were demanding the electoral council eliminate requirements that voters have their fingerprints recorded before voting. The students also called on the council to stop Nicolas Maduro, the country's acting president, from seizing TV and radio airwaves to promote his candidacy.
Demonstrators further demanded the resignation of Defense Minister Diego Molero, who has publicly supported Maduro. The constitution forbids the military from taking sides in politics, although soldiers are permitted to vote.
Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles has strongly criticized the electoral council for failing to stop perceived government bias for Maduro ahead of the April 14 vote.
The news channel Globovision reported that National Guard troops had stopped a bus in Carabobo state carrying 50 students headed for the march, with the troops saying the students needed permission from their university rector to leave the campus. The university told Globovision that the students did not need its permission to leave.
Christopher Toothaker on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ctoothaker