Socialist hardliners in Venezuela opened fire during a march headed by Juan Guaidó, injuring a 16-year-old demonstrator and adding to tensions in the country as the opposition leader seeks to revive his campaign to oust Nicolás Maduro.
A photo of the confrontation shows a masked man brandishing a pistol pointed toward a group of opposition activists, including Guaidó, who can be seen staring down the unidentified man.
The confusing incident Saturday in the central city of Barquisimeto is believed to be the first time Venezuela's pro-government vigilantes known as colectivos have aimed a weapon at Guaidó.
The Popular Will leader, who previously declared himself Venezuela's interim leader, has been recognised by the US and more than 50 other countries as the country's rightful leader following Maduro's re-election in 2018 in a race the opposition says was marred by irregularities.
The city's former mayor and opposition activist Alfredo Ramos said the marchers led by Guaidó were “ambushed" by about 200 colectivo members and government security forces loyal to Maduro.
Ramos said worse bloodshed was avoided because the unidentified man did not open fire at that moment.
But later, as the crowd swelled, a 16-year-old demonstrator was shot in the leg and several others were roughed up as the colectivos harassed participants.
“Courage and strength,” Guaidó said in a conversation with the injured activist that was videotaped by his aides while their caravan headed back to Caracas. “We're going to achieve freedom for our country.”
Later, the opposition leader reiterated a call for supporters to take to the streets on March 10.
“It's time to increase decisively and without fear the actions and pressure on the tyranny headed by Maduro,” he said in a statement.
There was no immediate comment from the Maduro government.
The AP was not present at the rally so was unable to verify the lawmakers' account. The photo of the gunman aiming at Guaido was provided to The Associated Press by the opposition leader's team.
An opposition lawmaker from the region, Daniel Antequera, said the march through poor neighborhoods drew surprisingly strong support. It lasted about an hour with the armed groups meeting them at various points, he said. They pressed on believing the gunfire was going into the air — until learning that the teen was shot.
“They won’t be able to stop an entire country that is starving and that understands the only way to progress is through democracy and liberty,” said Antequera, who visited the boy in the hospital.
Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based political analyst, said the incident underscores the forceful role being played in Venezuela by the colectivos.
As political turmoil has swept over Venezuela the past year, armed groups loyal to Maduro have been increasingly deployed by a government determined to resist domestic opposition and mounting international pressure, Pantoulas said.
“This is a tactic by the government to use violence by colectivos to intimidate its opponents,” said Pantoulas. “Every day the colectivos are feeling stronger inside the Maduro government. One day, the situation could easily get out of hand and lead to bloodshed.”
While colectivos in the past have been subordinate to Maduro, Pantoulas cautioned that as the embattled leader's grip on power has weakened some have strayed and operate independently or are aligned with other Chavista revolution bosses.
It is was the first public trip Guaidó has taken outside the capital of Caracas since returning from an international tour to rally support, including a White House meeting with President Donald Trump, who invited Guaidó as a special guest to his annual State of the Union address.
Guaidó was met by rowdy Maduro supporters when he returned to Venezuela. Guaidó surrounded by security pushed his way through the crowd as it pounded on his departing vehicle. His uncle who returned on the same flight was jailed on suspicion of bringing explosives into the country, charges Guaidó calls a threat against him.