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Venezuela is divided even on his death toll

SAN CRISTÓBAL, Venezuela — At least 11 people have died in more than two weeks of antigovernment protests, according to government and news media reports, and there are no signs of anything calming down. But even the death toll was a cause for argument on Sunday in this bitterly divided country, as officials disagreed over whether the latest death was related to the protests.

President Nicolás Maduro said during a television broadcast on Sunday that the latest victim was a young man who was stabbed to death the previous night near this city in western Táchira State, which borders Colombia. The protests started here in early February before sweeping the nation. Last week, Mr. Maduro ordered hundreds of soldiers into the state to restore order, leading to further tension with demonstrators.

Mr. Maduro, speaking in Caracas, the capital, said the victim of Saturday’s stabbing, Danny Vargas, was not a protester but was mistaken for one by the man who killed him. The attacker, he said, had been humiliated by demonstrators in an earlier incident and stabbed Mr. Vargas when he passed by a barricade the protesters had built to block a street.

“Two victims,” Mr. Maduro said. “A humiliated man, a victim of rage, and a boy, a victim of the aggression of the protesters, and then a situation of uncontrolled violence, thanks to who? Thanks to the protesters, thanks to the coup plotters.”

Mr. Maduro charges that the protesters are fascists trying to stage a coup. He has sought to focus on acts of violence and property damage tied to some of the protests, while largely ignoring the demands of many protesters who have engaged in peaceful demonstrations fueled by anger over rampant violent crime and deep economic problems.

But the mayor of San Cristóbal, Daniel Ceballos, on Sunday disputed Mr. Maduro’s account and said that Mr. Vargas was killed during an attempt to steal a motorcycle.

Mr. Ceballos, who was elected in December, said that Mr. Maduro wanted to associate a death with the protests in San Cristóbal “to justify his repression, to justify his militarization” of the state.

“Maduro is looking for a death here, but the murder is the result of crime, which is also his responsibility,” Mr. Ceballos said, a reference to the high crime rate. “It was a robbery,” he said.

Another version offered by local police was that the killing occurred after an argument at a social gathering.

Mr. Ceballos is a member of a party led by the opposition politician Leopoldo López, who was arrested last week and charged with instigating violence during the protests. Mr. Maduro has also threatened to jail Mr. Ceballos for supporting the protesters.

The back and forth over the death toll illustrated the deep divide that is fueling the protests, nearly a year after the death of the country’s longtime president, Hugo Chávez, a socialist who was Mr. Maduro’s mentor. Mr. Maduro has vowed to continue Mr. Chávez’s socialist revolution.

On Friday, the national prosecutor, Luisa Ortega, said that eight people had died and 137 people had been injured so far in the unrest. But after her announcement, a man was killed that night in Caracas when he rode his motorcycle through a barricade that included a heavy wire or cable strung across the street. Local news media reported that he was decapitated.

Then on Saturday, according to local news reports, a 23-year-old woman died from wounds she received several days earlier when she was shot in the face with buckshot, apparently at close range, by a National Guard soldier. The National Guard has been using buckshot to disperse crowds. The shot is often made of plastic pellets, but it was not clear from reports whether that was the case in this episode.

The first deaths occurred after a peaceful march on Feb. 12 in the center of Caracas. The march was followed by rioting and scattered protests. Two protesters and a government supporter were shot to death in separate episodes on that day. A Caracas newspaper, Últimas Noticias, has reported that photographs and video showed that, at the time of one of those shootings, men in uniforms and others in civilian clothes who appeared to be with them, fired on protesters.

On Saturday, thousands of people in Caracas attended the largest demonstration yet in the protests, filling one of the city’s major avenues for many blocks.

On Sunday, smaller protests continued around the country.

During his television appearance on Sunday, Mr. Maduro attended an event for the elderly, where he danced with his wife, Cilia Flores, whom he refers to as the country’s First Combatant.

Mr. Maduro has called for a national peace conference to be held on Wednesday.

On Monday, he was scheduled to meet with state governors in Caracas. A main opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, who ran against him for president, is expected to attend.

#thenewyorktimes #venezuela

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