Venezuelan manhunt underway for opposition leader
A demonstrator throws stones at the National Bolivarian Police (BNP) after clashes broke out at an opposition protest in Caracas, Venezuela, Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014. Venezuelan security forces backed by water tanks, tear gas and rubber bullets dispersed groups of anti-government demonstrators who tried to block Caracas' main highway Saturday evening.
CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan security forces simultaneously raided the homes of Leopoldo Lopez and his parents, looking to arrest the hard-line opposition leader who President Nicolas Maduro blames for three deaths at recent anti-government protests.
Lopez, who hasn't been seen since a Wednesday night press conference, wasn't at either of the residences in Caracas leafy eastern district when groups of national guardsmen and military intelligence officials arrived late at night. Aides said neighbors banged on pots and pans to protest what they consider an arbitrary detention order.
"Maduro, you're a coward," Lopez said in a message posted on Twitter after security forces left the premises early Sunday. "You're not going to force me or my family to bow down."
The midnight manhunt capped another night of protests during which security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets to break up a group of some 500 students who have vowed to remain on the streets until all anti-government demonstrators are released. Authorities said 23 people were being treated for injuries, none of them life-threatening.
Earlier Saturday, Maduro said that authorities were searching for the 42-year-old Lopez, who he accuses of leading a US-backed, "fascist" plot to oust him from power just two months after his party's candidates won mayoral elections by a landslide.
Lopez "ordered all these violent kids, who he trained, to destroy the prosecutor's office and half of Caracas and then goes into hiding," Maduro told thousands of supporters at a rally Saturday. "Turn yourself in coward."
Lopez has vowed to press ahead with protests to force Maduro to give up power, blaming the socialist president for rampant crime, galloping 50 percent inflation and worsening shortages of basic goods.
Still, he has called on Venezuelans to avoid violence and has said that he had nothing to do with the clashes with police and pro-government militias that took place Wednesday after the rally he helped organized against Maduro's 10-month-old government had concluded peacefully.
U.S. officials have denied any plotting to oust Maduro, and Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday expressed concern over the rising tensions and violence surrounding the protests.
"We are particularly alarmed by reports that the Venezuelan government has arrested or detained scores of anti-government protesters and issued an arrest warrant for opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez," Kerry said in a statement. "These actions have a chilling effect on citizens' rights to express their grievances peacefully."
Aides to Lopez denied he's ducking arrest and say he remains in the country.
Lopez, a Harvard-trained former mayor, is the most prominent of a group of hard-liners who have challenged two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles for leadership of anti-Maduro movement.
In an apparent bid to dampen anti-government demonstrations, which have been held off-and-on since Wednesday, Maduro said he had ordered the suspension of subway and bus service in the Chacao area of the capital where the protests are centered.
"We can't have a moment of weakness, because we are trying to defeat a fascist movement that wants to end the country we have," said Maduro, the hand-picked successor to the late Hugo Chavez.
For the past three days, student protesters had occupied the main highway through Caracas for several hours, blocking traffic to press their demands.
"We are not going to give in or kneel. We are going to continue in the streets, fighting for Venezuelans and the youths who want a democratic country, with free media that aren't censored or self-censored, with justice and equity," said Juan Requesen, a student leader at the Universidad Central de Venezuela.
Follow Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APjoshgoodman. AP writers Jorge Rueda and Andrew Rosati contributed to this report.