Protesters killed 2 police officers with a bus in one of Venezuela's most volatile cities

Two police officers were killed and four wounded on Tuesday in the western Venezuelan city of San Cristobal after they were hit by a bus driven by young men protesting a hike in public-transport fares, according to government officials and Reuters witnesses.

Protests broke out near the Agroindustrial University Institute (IUT) in southern San Cristobal, according to Venezuela-based blog Caracas Chronicles.

In response, police barricaded streets near the IUT in order to contain the demonstrations.

Protesters hijacked a passenger bus from a nearby terminal and attempted to drive it through a police cordon to the university, where about 70 demonstrators were rallying against a nationally decreed bus-fare hike.

“We regret the loss of life of police officers who were carrying out their duties,” state Governor Jose Vielma tweeted. “We reject any act that threatens stability and the lives of citizens. Violence brings bad consequences,” he wrote.

One of those killed was a 25-year-old member the National Police, and the other was a 20-year-old officer of the Táchira state police.

State and national police had clashed with protestors on the scene. Demonstrators had hurled stones and Molotov cocktails at the police units, who, in return, fired tear-gas canisters and pellets at the crowds, according to local newspaper Diario La Nacion.

After the collision, state and national police and national guard units arrested dozens of people suspected of involvement in the bus hijacking.

More than 1,000 protests — almost 17 a day — were reported in the first two months of this year by the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict. There were also 64 incidents of looting over that period, often happening outside supermarkets, as people fight over scarce goods. The unrest has been driven by a deep recession, triple-digit inflation and scarcity of food, medicine and other necessities.

San Cristobal in particular has been a focal point for unrest. “Masked youths have been burning tires and hurling stones at police, who respond with tear gas and water cannon, in overtly political protests demanding [President Nicolas] Maduro’s exit,” Reuters reported in mid-March.

The Venezuela opposition, which won control of the country’s legislature in December, has mounted a multipart effort to oust Maduro, the embattled successor to late President Hugo Chavez, and who is contending with an unravelling economy and deep-seated social and political strife.

The opposition alliance hopes protests, a recall referendum, or a constitutional amendment will force Maduro out of office this year. Maduro has rejected their efforts, saying his government is the one to steer the country out of its current morass.

“We are here to work undisturbed in the great objectives of the economic recovery,” Maduro said during a meeting with businessmen and senior government officials in early March. “And from there, they will not get rid of me, nor should they get rid of anyone.”

While the opposition has made protests a central pillar in its anti-Maduro strategy, recent demonstrations have failed to draw the people and fervor they have in the past, as many Venezuelans appear drained by years of crisis and scarcity.

Two years ago, San Cristobal was the epicentre of nationwide anti-government protests that dragged on for weeks and left more than 40 people — security forces and anti- and pro-government demonstrators — dead but failed to push President Nicolas Maduro from office.

Despite the protests, the enduring impasse, and dissatisfaction with the current political environment, some Venezuelans still want country’s rival factions to negotiate.

“I don’t support either side as they’re both the same,” Miguel Contrera, a 57-year-old shoe-shiner who avidly supported Chavez until his death in 2013, told Reuters in mid-March. “They need to come to an agreement to improve things.”

Reuters contributed to this story.

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