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May 9, 2014

Venezuelan officials break up protesters' camps

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Hundreds of Venezuelan police and troops broke up four makeshift camps maintained by student protesters, arresting 243 people Thursday in pre-dawn raids.

The tent cities were installed more than a month ago in front of the offices of the United Nations and in better-off neighborhoods in the capital to protest against President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government.

Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres presented homemade mortars, guns and Molotov cocktails that he said were seized at the camps and used to carry out "terrorist" acts against security forces.

"This shows there was an entire logistical apparatus in place," Rodriguez Torres said, seeking to counter claims that the anti-government movement has been peaceful and spontaneous.

Speaking at a news conference outside the detention center where the protesters were being held, he said an "impressive" amount of drugs were also found. He performed a test in front of journalists to determine the purity of cocaine that he said was confiscated.

The dismantling of the camps was announced just hours before a top opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, was scheduled to appear in court after being in custody since February. The hearing on whether he should begin trial on charges of inciting violence at anti-government protests was suspended and he was taken back to a military prison almost as soon as he arrived at the courthouse downtown.

Witnesses near the U.N. office said hundreds of National Guardsmen began arriving after 3 a.m. and were greeted angrily by neighbors who launched objects and insults from nearby balconies.

Rodriguez Torres said the operation was carried out cleanly, with security forces relying on the element of surprise rather than aggressive force to round up the protesters.

He said the detainees would be charged, but it wasn't clear when that would happen. Under Venezuelan law, prosecutors have 48 hours to bring detainees before a judge and charge them, but in recent months officials have often ignored the rules and held protesters incommunicado for longer periods before letting them go.

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