SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela â€” The country’s embattled government said it was sending military units to the southwestern state of Tachira to restore order as supporters of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez continued to protest Thursday.
However, the government stopped short of calling a state of emergency or suspending civil liberties. Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres said in a press conference that one airborne and one engineering battalion would be sent to Tachira, which borders Colombia.
The parachutists will occupy positions leading into the capital of San Cristobal, where demonstrations have paralyzed the city, Rodriguez Torres said.
“This is a measure to restore public order,” Rodriguez Torres said. “This is not a militarization. We are also preparing special groups to go to violent torn areas. In a few days we will be able to have the situation stabilized.”
The government has also banned the carrying of firearms throughout the state, he said. Internet in the state has been disrupted, but Rodriguez Torres said he didn’t know what had caused it.
Until Thursday, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government has tried to suppress more than two weeks of demonstrations and rioting with the country’s National Guard and police. The use of the army marks an escalation of the conflict, which is presenting Maduro with his biggest political challenge since he was sworn in last April.
Meanwhile, Lopez may face more than 10 years in prison for his role in a student demonstration that left three people dead. Government prosecutors charged Lopez with arson, delinquency and conspiracy to promote delinquency during a preliminary hearing late Wednesday night at a military installation outside Caracas.
In an unusual twist, the presiding judge was taken to the Ramo Verde military camp in the central city of Los Teques, rather than holding the hearing in the court in Caracas, El Universal reported.
The location of the proceeding changed as Lopez supporters and opponents gathered at the court. Murder charges against Lopez were dropped.
Lopez, who surrendered to authorities Tuesday after addressing a rally by his supporters, will be held for 45 days while prosecutors collect evidence, the government said.
Neither Lopez nor his attorneys were immediately available for comment. Lopez, 42, has repeatedly denied all wrongdoing in the Feb. 12 protest.
“Leopoldo Lopez isn’t going to be the person to save the country,” Maduro said during a nationwide televised address before the court hearing began.
Maduro accused Lopez, a Harvard-educated former mayor of Caracas, of being head of Venezuela’s “fascists.” Maduro also said that the government had uncovered a plot by right-wingers to assassinate Lopez to provoke a civil war.
He gave no proof to his allegations. Maduro repeatedly accused the United States and former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe of backing students to overthrow him during his two-hour-long address.
On Thursday, Rodriguez Torres also blamed Uribe for meddling in the mounting violence in Tachira.
“We have detected Colombian personnel who have come to complete missions in the rioting,” he said.
Maduro’s speech provoked renewed protests throughout the country. Many Venezuelans began banging on pots and pans, a traditional form of protest, as Maduro spoke.
“In Venezuela they are applying a form of continuous coup d’etat to generate a spiral of hatred and justify a foreign military intervention,” Maduro said. Throughout his speech, he played several videos showing violent acts by protesters, complete with ominous sounding music.
Students and their backers were again in the streets and built barricades in several cities, including the capital of Caracas on Thursday. Security forces were confronting students Thursday morning with tear gas to force them to abandon their positions, Globovision reported.
Venezuela, which has the world’s largest oil reserves, has been convulsed by daily protests and demonstrations since the start of the month. The protests, which are being spearheaded by university students, have focused on the country’s deteriorating economy, rampant crime and corruption, and the lack of job opportunities.
At least six people, including five students, have lost their lives in the protests.
Students have vowed to continue their demonstrations until the government changes it policies. The opposition has also scheduled a protest march for Saturday in Caracas.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski appealed to university students for calm on Thursday.
“Anarchy is the ally of the government,” he told reporters. “Don’t fall into that.”
Capriles, who narrowly lost to Maduro in a special presidential election in April following the death of the late Hugo Chavez, said that the people promoting violence are government officials, who want Maduro out so that National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello can take power.
He denounced alleged torture and sexual abuse by the police and National Guard and called for an end to brutality by the security forces. He also called on Maduro to start talks with the opposition to end the crisis.
“This country is marching to an economic collapse,” he said.