CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Hundreds of Venezuelan police and troops broke up four makeshift camps maintained by student protesters, arresting 243 people Thursday in pre-dawn raids.
The tent cities were installed more than a month ago in front of the offices of the United Nations and in better-off neighborhoods in the capital to protest against President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government.
Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres presented homemade mortars, guns and Molotov cocktails that he said were seized at the camps and used to carry out “terrorist” acts against security forces.
“This shows there was an entire logistical apparatus in place,” Rodriguez Torres said, seeking to counter claims that the anti-government movement has been peaceful and spontaneous.
Speaking at a news conference outside the detention center where the protesters were being held, he said an “impressive” amount of drugs were also found. He performed a test in front of journalists to determine the purity of cocaine that he said was confiscated.
The dismantling of the camps was announced just hours before a top opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, was scheduled to appear in court after being in custody since February. The hearing on whether he should begin trial on charges of inciting violence at anti-government protests was suspended and he was taken back to a military prison almost as soon as he arrived at the courthouse downtown.
Witnesses near the U.N. office said hundreds of National Guardsmen began arriving after 3 a.m. and were greeted angrily by neighbors who launched objects and insults from nearby balconies.
Rodriguez Torres said the operation was carried out cleanly, with security forces relying on the element of surprise rather than aggressive force to round up the protesters.
He said the detainees would be charged, but it wasn’t clear when that would happen. Under Venezuelan law, prosecutors have 48 hours to bring detainees before a judge and charge them, but in recent months officials have often ignored the rules and held protesters incommunicado for longer periods before letting them go.
Hours after the raids, a scattered detritus of shoes, clothes and destroyed banners littered the streets where the makeshift campground once stood. A few dozen neighbors built barricades to block traffic, demanding the release of the students.
“How can this be allowed when the constitution guarantees the right to peaceful protest,” said Anais Serrano, a real estate agent. “These kids weren’t anything bad.”
The raids came as the U.S. Congress began debate Thursday on economic sanctions against top Venezuelan officials.
The Obama administration argued at a Senate committee hearing that sanctions would be premature while dialogue continues between Maduro’s government and some members of the opposition.
Roberta Jacobson, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said some opposition leaders have urged the United States not to go forward with sanctions.
“They have asked us not to pursue them at this time,” Jacobson said.
The legislation in both chambers is relatively modest. It centers on freezing assets and banning visas for Venezuelan officials who crushed anti-government protests. It would also boost aid for pro-democracy and civil society groups.
U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman who introduced the legislation, said he would like to hear directly from leaders who oppose the sanctions.
Anti-Maduro groups are divided on how much to engage with the government. Students and hardliners are boycotting the talks, which they consider a ploy by Maduro to deflect foreign criticism of his handling of the crisis.
The South American country has been roiled since February by demonstrations that have resulted in 41 deaths on all sides and left 785 injured. At least 2,200 people have been arrested in connection with the protests over the last few months.
Maduro’s administration has grown increasingly fed up with the demonstrations and last week announced it had arrested 58 foreigners, including an American, on suspicion of inciting violent street protests against the government.
Opponents have repeatedly rejected Maduro’s frequent allegations that the protests are seeking his overthrow, saying he is trying to distract attention from grueling economic crisis marked by 57 percent inflation and record shortages of basic goods.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a sponsor of the sanctions legislation in the Senate, said the message that penalties would carry is important. The move comes as human rights groups accuse Venezuelan security officials of arresting, torturing and even killing unarmed demonstrators.
“This is happening in our very own hemisphere,” Rubio said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. He said sanctions should target anyone responsible for human rights violations, refusing to rule out Maduro as a potential target.
Action now would show the U.S. is “firmly on the side of the democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people,” Rubio said.
Associated Press writers Luis Alonso Lugo and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.