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FILE PHOTO: Police fire tear gas toward opposition supporters during clashes while rallying against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins(reuters_tickers)
By Eyanir Chinea and Efrain Otero
CARACAS (Reuters) - Eight people were electrocuted to death during a looting incident in Caracas, a firefighter said on Friday, amid violent protests against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro by opponents accusing him of seeking to create a dictatorship.
The accident occurred when a group of looters broke into a bakery in the working class neighbourhood of El Valle, according the firefighter, who asked not be identified. It was not immediately possible to confirm details of the incident with hospital or other officials.
The public prosecutor's office said later on Friday it was investigating 11 deaths in El Valle, adding that "some" victims had died from being electrocuted.
Nine other people have been killed in violence associated with a wave of anti-government demonstrations in the past three weeks in which protesters have clashed with security forces in melees lasting well into the night.
"Yesterday around 9 or 10 (p.m.)things got pretty scary, a group of people carrying weapons came down ... and started looting," said Hane Mustafa, owner of a small supermarket in El Valle, where broken bottles of soy sauce and ketchup littered the floor between bare shelves.
"The security situation is not in the hands of the government. We lost everything here," said Mustafa, who said he could hear the looting from his home, which is adjacent to the store.
Dozens of businesses in the area showed signs of looting, ranging from empty shelves to broken windows and twisted metal entrance gates.
The Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for details.
Security forces patrolled much of Caracas on Friday, including El Valle.
Maduro's government is so far resisting the pressure of the most serious protests in three years as opposition leaders push a series of political demands, drawing support from a public angered by the country's collapsing economy.
Ruling Socialist Party leaders describe the protesters as hoodlums who are damaging public property and disrupting public order to overthrow the government with the support of ideological adversaries in Washington.
"This wounded and failed opposition is trying to generate chaos in key areas of the city and convince the world that we're in some sort of civil war, the same playbook used for Syria, for Libya and for Iraq," said Socialist Party official Freddy Bernal in an internet broadcast at 1:00 a.m.
Opposition leaders have promised to keep up their protests, demanding that Maduro's government call general elections, free almost 100 jailed opposition activists and respect the autonomy of the opposition-led Congress.
They are calling for community-level protests across the country on Friday, a white-clad "silent" march in Caracas on Saturday to commemorate those killed in the unrest, and a nationwide "sit-in" blocking Venezuela's main roads on Monday.
Daniela Alvarado, 25, who sells vegetables in the El Valle area, said the looting on Thursday night began after police officers fired tear gas and buckshot at demonstrators blocking a street with burning tires.
"People starting looting the businesses and yelling that they were hungry and that they want the government out," said Alvarado. "We're afraid (the stores) are going to run out of everything, that tomorrow there won't be any food."
Separately, a man was killed by a gunshot in the Caracas slum of Petare on Thursday night, municipal mayor Carlos Ocariz said on Friday.
The OPEC nation's economy has been in free-fall since the collapse of oil prices in 2014. The generous oil-financed welfare state created by late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, Maduro's predecessor, has given way to a Soviet-style economy marked by consumer shortages, triple-digit inflation and snaking supermarket lines.
Many Venezuelans say they have to skip meals in order to feed their children.
Public anger at the situation spilled over last month when the Supreme Court, which is seen as close to the government, briefly assumed the powers of the Congress. The protests were further fuelled when the government barred the opposition's best-known leader, two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, from holding public office.
(Additional reporting by Carlos Garcia and Brian Ellsworth; Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Frances Kerry)