Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro is readying crisis talks to try to defuse a deadly wave of protests that have brought the biggest challenge yet to his government.
"This is a national peace conference I am calling for Wednesday with all social, political, union and religious groups," Maduro told supporters outside the presidential palace.
Groups of mainly elderly people marched Sunday in downtown Caracas in support of Maduro, a day after Venezuela's largest demonstrations in weeks of escalating protests left 25 people injured. Maduro is grappling with the biggest crisis of his government since narrowly being elected last year after the death of leftist icon Hugo Chavez, with at least 10 people killed since protests erupted on February 4.
Hundreds of thousands of pro- and anti-government protesters had hit the streets of the capital on Saturday, leading to night-time clashes with security forces that were some of the most serious to date.
Student and opposition demonstrators are campaigning over bleak economic prospects, including a shortage of food and commodities, repression by police and a dire job market.
Dozens of people, including opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, have been arrested or wounded.
While the dialogue has no precedent in Maduro's term, political analyst John Madgaleno said participation by longtime opposition leader Henrique Capriles could put the former presidential candidate in a position to benefit – if the talks pans out. Capriles "could be the sort of middle ground, after Leopoldo Lopez pushed for an end to Maduro's government".
Pro-government demonstrators Sunday dressed in red – the color of the socialist administration – held Venezuelan flags and pro-Maduro banners, protesting what they called "fascist violence" by student opposition. "That's enough youth violence. This is a country of peace. We want a future of peace," Cristina Marcos, 60, told reporters during a rally that began in the morning at the Plaza Bolivar and headed towards the Miraflores Palace, where the president spoke.
Tensions soar higher amid deaths
Competing mass rallies in the capital are laying bare a chasm between those who support Maduro and those who oppose him in an oil-rich country that, despite having the world's largest proven reserves, is grappling with basic goods shortages, rampant inflation and violent crime.
The protests – which began in the western city of San Cristobal led by students angry over the soaring crime rate – have increasingly been accompanied by violence and attempts to intimidate protesters and the media. Of 25 people hurt in the late-night unrest in Caracas's posh Chacao municipality, 14 were wounded from birdshot before protesters were dispersed using gas and birdshot, the Chacao mayor said Sunday. In Caracas, there have also been incidents of men on pick-up trucks, escorted by motorbikes, intimidating protesters.
Now the government is scrambling to try to blunt what it sees as international and social media portrayals of the elected government as a bad guy due to its security forces' behavior with demonstrators, analysts say. "The government has seen how high the public opinion price is at home and abroad for his security forces' actions," said Magdaleno. "With these crisis talks, he is looking for some kind of appeasement."
On Saturday, Maduro who denies any links to armed pro-government groups, unveiled the new peace initiative – a week after a national public safety strategy he announced was overtaken by the protests.
Maduro insists the protests are part of a "coup d'etat in development" instigated by Washington and conservative ex-Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, who is considered close to the United States.
The president also ordered the arrest of a retired general. Angel Vivas, saying he had ties to the violence that marred the protests. Vivas, a harsh critic of Maduro and what he calls "Cuban infiltration" of Venezuela's armed forces, said on Twitter he was resisting arrest. Maduro claims that Vivas trained radicals to use wires on Caracas streets; a man's head was severed by one such wire on Friday.