Socialist hardliners opened fire on Guaido rally in Venezuela, injuring 16-year-old

Click to play video: '‘Violent and brutal’ attack on vehicle carrying Venezuelan opposition: Guaido'
‘Violent and brutal’ attack on vehicle carrying Venezuelan opposition: Guaido
WATCH: 'Violent and brutal' attack on vehicle carrying Venezuelan opposition: Guaido – Jan 15, 2020

Socialist hardliners in Venezuela opened fire during a march headed by Juan Guaido, injuring a 16-year-old demonstrator and adding to tensions in the country as the opposition leader seeks to revive his campaign to oust Nicolas Maduro.

A photo of the confrontation provided exclusively to The Associated Press shows a masked man brandishing a pistol pointed toward a group of opposition activists, including Guaido, who can be seen staring down the unidentified man.

The confusing incident Saturday in the central city of Barquisimeto is believed to be the first time pro-government vigilantes known as colectivos have aimed a weapon at Guaido, who the U.S. and more than 50 other countries recognize as Venezuela’s rightful leader following Maduro’s re-election in 2018 in a race marred by irregularities.

In this photo released by the Juan Guaido’s Press Office, an unidentified man aims a gun at a crowd as opposition leader Juan Guaido, centre right in light blue shirt, meets with supporters during a rally in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, Feb. 29, 2020. Juan Guaido Press Office via The Associated Press

The city’s former mayor and opposition activist Alfredo Ramos said the marchers led by Guaido were “ambushed” by about 200 colectivo members and government security forces loyal to Maduro.

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Ramos said worse bloodshed was avoided because the unidentified man did not open fire at that moment.

But later, as the crowd swelled, a 16-year-old demonstrator was shot in the leg and several others were roughed up as the colectivos harassed participants, in some cases stealing their cellphones. Amid the sound of bullets firing into the air, the march quickly scattered.

“Courage and strength,” Guaido said in a conversation with the injured activist that was videotaped by his aides while their caravan headed back to Caracas. “We’re going to achieve freedom for our country.”

The AP was not present at the rally so was unable to verify the lawmakers’ account. There was no immediate comment from the Maduro government.

Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based political analyst, said the incident underscores the forceful role being played in Venezuela by the colectivos.

As political turmoil has swept over Venezuela the past year, armed groups loyal to Maduro have been increasingly deployed by a government determined to resist domestic opposition and mounting international pressure, Pantoulas said.

“This is a tactic by the government to use violence by colectivos to intimidate its opponents,” said Pantoulas. “Every day the collectivos are feeling stronger inside the Maduro government. One day, the situation could easily get out of hand and lead to bloodshed.”

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Click to play video: 'Venezuela’s Guaido joins thousands of supporters in Madrid, Spain'
Venezuela’s Guaido joins thousands of supporters in Madrid, Spain

While colectivos in the past have been subordinate to Maduro, Pantoulas cautioned that as the embattled leader’s grip on power has weakened some have strayed and operate independently or are aligned with other Chavista revolution bosses.

It is was the first public trip Guaido has taken outside the capital of Caracas since returning from an international tour to rally support, including a White House meeting with President Donald Trump, who invited Guaido as a special guest to his annual State of the Union address.

Guaido was met by rowdy Maduro supporters when he returned to Venezuela. Guaido surrounded by security pushed his way through the crowd as it pounded on his departing vehicle. His uncle who returned on the same flight was jailed on suspicion of bringing explosives into the country, charges Guaido calls a threat against him.

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