SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela (AP) — A 14-year-old boy died Tuesday after being shot in the head during an anti-government protest in Venezuela’s restive western region.
The student was injured during a confrontation between police and protesters in the city, and died on the way to the hospital, according to local human rights workers. Officials said 23-year-old police officer Javier Mora Ortiz confessed to firing on the boy with plastic ammunition.
A photo and video of the student lying in a pool of blood, his backpack hanging over his shoulder, as a man frantically tries to staunch the bleeding and others scream and clutch their heads in horror rocketed around social media.
Ruling party officials including President Nicolas Maduro condemned the killing with rare speed and forcefulness, and called for calm.
But what had started as a small demonstration against the socialist South American government grew into a larger protest as night fell in San Cristobal, with shops closing their doors and public transportation stopping routes in anticipation of unrest. Some schools in the university town near the Colombian border known for its tendency toward protests announced that the next day’s classes would be canceled.
One of Venezuela’s more radical opposition parties immediately called for a gathering in the capital Wednesday to demand an investigation into the cases of students who have died at the hands of the government.
Maduro said in a nationally televised address that masked protesters had used rocks to attack police who sought to quell the demonstration. He called on young people to resist instigating such confrontations, but also condemned the killing.
“I want to offer my condolences to the parents of this young man who was murdered in an act of violence,” he said.
Venezuelan ombudsman Tarek William Saab, a federal official charged with defending human rights, said on Twitter that he deplored the “vile assassination” of the teen, who he named as Kluiverth Roa, though other officials spelled his first name differently.
Last month, the government issued a policy change to allow law enforcement officials to open fire and use deadly force to control protests. At the time, human rights groups said the new regulation was dangerously vague, but Saab defended it.
Interior Relations Minister Carmen Melendez pledged that the government would pursue Roa’s killer “relentlessly.” And the attorney general’s office said the police officer would be charged in connection with the death.
Also on Tuesday, lawmakers from Venezuela’s ruling socialist party moved to strip an opposition congressman of his seat.
Lawmakers began the process of removing Julio Borges from the National Assembly. The Supreme Court must also approve the motion. Borges is one of a laundry list of high-profile opposition leaders recently accused of plotting to overthrow the government, and could be prosecuted if he loses his seat, and thus his legislative immunity.
Tensions were already running high in Venezuela following of a slew of bad economic news and the arrest last week of the opposition mayor of Caracas. February marks the one year anniversary of massive street protests that choked neighborhoods around Venezuela and left more than 40 people dead.
Dissatisfaction with the administration has grown in the past year, but opposition leaders have so far been reluctant to call for similarly large-scale protests.
In San Cristobal, residents vented their outrage Tuesday night.
“How are you going shoot point blank at a student who’s just leaving school to go home?” asked Glenda Lugo. “We’re tired of this injustice.”
Fabiola Sanchez contributed to this story from Caracas
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